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Amid an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases nationwide, some policymakers and public health experts have reignited a debate about the necessity of introducing draconian lockdown measures similar to those used in Europe and elsewhere to contain the virus.

In the current upsurge in cases, which is being driven by the more contagious delta variant, Japan has seen daily case numbers surpassing 10,000 nationwide day after day. The public is already showing signs of fatigue from repeated emergency declarations, and popular destinations have seen increased foot traffic despite Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga urging people to refrain from nonessential outings.

Even as cases mount, lawmakers argue that harsh legal curbs on the movement of people are unconstitutional and therefore cannot be enforced in Japan. Suga has been dismissive of a policy restricting outings with such penalties, saying it is “not suitable” for the country.

Irrespective of their public health merits, lockdowns have become a political football. Conservatives who have been eager to amend the Constitution see the pandemic as an opportunity to make a case for including a clause that strengthens the government’s authority in times of crisis. On the other hand, opposition politicians remain firmly against a bid to link the pandemic to constitutional revision.

Still, the latest wave of cases, which is threatening to bring about a collapse in the medical system, marks a critical point in discussions about Japan’s handling of the pandemic. The surge has forced policymakers to re-examine whether current measures, which largely rely on people’s sense of responsibility for compliance, are sufficient to protect public health and can withstand further challenges in future pandemics.

“If we were to create a law that would impose penalties, or even allow arrests in some cases, as in the West, this would be a law that would strongly restrict private rights,” health minister Norihisa Tamura said Tuesday. “This is a very serious issue, especially since the people of Japan are very concerned about it.”

But although he said that it would be “difficult” to contain the current spread with such a drastic measure because it would take time to prepare the legal framework, Tamura nonetheless endorsed Diet debates on what kind of measures are necessary to deal with infectious diseases that will emerge in the future.

Policemen stand at a security check point on a street in Karachi on Monday after a partial lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. | AFP-JIJI
Policemen stand at a security check point on a street in Karachi on Monday after a partial lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. | AFP-JIJI

Throughout the battle with the coronavirus, the central government has amended legislation to reinforce restrictions, but most of them are voluntary. Lawmakers believe that a lockdown would conflict with the Constitution because of its protections for human rights and guarantee of freedom of movement. Additionally, imposing a lockdown would damage the economy.

Two academics from Waseda University and the University of Hyogo estimate that if Tokyo were to enact a harsh lockdown similar to the one carried out in China’s Wuhan — only allowing the minimum daily activities needed for survival — Japan would in total lose ¥3.7 trillion in the space of a week and ¥27.8 trillion over a month in output. That would equal a 0.72% and 5.25% decline in gross domestic product, respectively.

The strongest legal option the government can invoke under the current framework is a state of emergency. Despite the name, there is neither a mask mandate nor a compulsory rule that bans outings as seen in other countries.

Once the prime minister designates the duration of a state of emergency and the prefectures where the measure will be imposed, the relevant governors can legally request that businesses shorten their hours or shut down temporarily to curb the spread of the virus.

If those businesses refuse to comply with the request, the prefectural governors can then order them to limit their activities. In extreme cases, governors can disclose the names of entities that disobey the order, as a way of public shaming, and charge a nonpenal fine of up to ¥300,000. There are no prison terms for violators.

In addition to public opposition to overly powerful government dating back to World War II, the Suga administration’s aversion to lockdowns stems from the fact that it deems voluntary measures to be sufficient because of Japanese society’s emphasis on conformity, said Hajime Ota, a Doshisha University professor specializing in organization theory who studies peer pressure.

“If the administration wants to call upon the strong power of the state, there will inevitably be a backlash against it,” Ota said. “But if the administration can reframe the conversation as ‘Hey, let’s voluntarily refrain from doing certain activities’ and shift the direction toward collective pressure, it can avoid taking the heat.”

Local residents walk past a make-shift barricade of parked trucks to stop unauthorized travel in Hanoi on July 30 amid a government-imposed two-week lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus. | AFP-JIJI
Local residents walk past a make-shift barricade of parked trucks to stop unauthorized travel in Hanoi on July 30 amid a government-imposed two-week lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus. | AFP-JIJI

National and regional leaders have brought up the idea of introducing lockdowns before but it has not been successful.

Early in the outbreak last year, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike floated the possibility of enforcing a lockdown, triggering a wave of panic based on the false belief that the capital might close its borders and block any cross-prefectural movement. Suga, then-chief Cabinet secretary, rushed to dispel the idea, and the term “lockdown” became taboo.

Nonetheless, the debate over lockdowns picked up again last Friday when multiple members of the government’s coronavirus panel reportedly exhorted the Suga administration to revise current legislation to strengthen anti-virus measures — including enabling a lockdown that limits people’s movement and business operations. Shigeru Omi, the top medical adviser to the government on COVID-19, agreed that it’s “fair” to have debates about lockdowns.

For its part, the National Governors’ Association issued a proposal at the weekend calling for legislators to consider more stringent legal actions such as lockdowns, and Hakubun Shimomura, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s policy research council chief, has said he is open to having “active discussions” at the Diet about enabling such a measure.

Still, the administration has been hesitant to immediately initiate a discussion on enabling lockdowns.

The prime minister said during a news conference Friday night that the vaccine rollout is the priority.

“In Europe and all other countries where infection control measures — such as lockdowns and fines if people went outside during curfews — were implemented, the number of cases fell but climbed up again even with the lockdowns,” Suga said. “In the end, I think it was the vaccine (that was effective). That’s why I believe that the lockdown method is not suitable for Japan.”

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