During March, for the most part, it seems that Japan may have been successful in containing COVID-19 despite its leaders coming under heavy criticism for a couple of initial missteps in February during the first wave of the outbreak.

These missteps included the government’s decision to keep the passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined for 14 days before allowing them to disembark, and after that not carefully tracing their movements. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was also criticized for his abrupt closure of all elementary and secondary schools for the month of March. His government has also continued to be criticized for not imposing a blanket travel ban on people coming from China and South Korea. But by late March, Japan had become an enigma as other countries struggled to contain the spread of the coronavirus with poor results.

Many speculated over why this new virus has not spread more quickly. In particular, many wondered why Japan has been able to contain the cases at a manageable level without imposing strict social distancing guidelines, or government orders to close nonessential businesses, or without the government declaring a state of emergency.

Some people have credited the self-quarantine that many Japanese chose to implement, while others suspect that Japan may not be testing enough people to grasp the real picture. Either way, Japan seemed to rank among the countries and regions, including China, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, that have weathered the pandemic relatively well. Until this past week, that is.

Now Japan has seen a bigger surge in the last seven days of March than it did the first three weeks of the month, prompting Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike to hold news conferences three times in the last week, urging the city’s residents to refrain from nonessential outings particularly in the evenings, to avoid crowded places and to work from home whenever possible. She also mentioned the possibility of locking down Tokyo if the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases shows a sharp rise. As speculation over whether Prime Minister Abe will declare a state of national emergency swirls, her suggestion of placing Tokyo on lockdown appears more feasible than ever.

Why this reversal of fortune for Japan? There are many plausible explanations. Perhaps people should have taken the initial calls to stay home more seriously. Looking from the United States, where 48 out of 50 states have declared a state of emergency with varying degrees of self-quarantine and social distancing orders, the images coming out of Japan even as COVID-19 rapidly spreads — people hanging out in bars and restaurants in close proximity, crowding parks to view cherry blossoms, etc. — seem almost surreal.

Maybe the government and companies should have been better prepared to establish an infrastructure that enables employees to work from home. However, the biggest problem seems to be that the government never recovered from its initial missteps in responding to the outbreak.

Compared with places like Taiwan, which has contained the spread of COVID-19 despite its proximity to China, it is only in the last few days that the Japanese government began to discuss a blanket travel ban from China. While other countries have already imposed mandatory 14-day self-quarantines for citizens returning from overseas, Japan lagged behind in instituting a comparable process, let alone establishing ways to trace their whereabouts and monitor them after their return.

The government, following the passage of the Special Measures Law that would give the prime minister the authority to declare a national emergency, is continuing to finalize the precise conditions that would justify such an declaration. If anything, the government, in the absence of an explosive increase in confirmed cases, has seemed to focus its attention on crafting an economic stimulus package while relying largely on the public’s good will to voluntarily self-quarantine to curb the spread of the virus.

On Monday, Japan and the International Olympic Committee agreed that the rescheduled Tokyo Olympic Summer Games will begin on July 23, 2021. Between now and then, Abe and his government will face three daunting challenges: 1) responding to the unfolding COVID-19 emergency in a way that will regain confidence not only of citizens but also of the international community as the Olympic host; 2) putting the country’s economy back on track in the meantime; and 3) getting the country fully prepared to host the Olympics in a little over a year.

For Abe, who has defined himself as a decisive leader, this is no doubt the biggest test for his leadership.For Abe, who has defined himself as a decisive leader, this is no doubt the biggest test for his leadership.

Yuki Tatsumi is co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

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