How Japan’s refusal to impose a coronavirus lockdown is dividing the country

A majority of the public view Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s response as timid and sluggish. 

 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

When the cruise ship Diamond Princess docked in Yokohama, there were 700 passengers infected with Covid-19 on board. Immediately, headlines around the world warned that Japan would be the next country to face the problems China had. In fact, Japan was one of the first countries outside China to see cases of the novel coronavirus, but it has so far kbeen spared an epidemic. As of 23 April, there have been 11,994 cases and 299 deaths nationwide. 

The arrival of Diamond Princess spurred the government into action. On 1 April, the Foreign Ministry suspended visas and short-stay visa waivers for people from more than 100 countries. Foreign travellers have almost entirely stopped coming to Japan, with government data for March showing a 93 per cent drop in visitor numbers compared to one year ago.

On 7 April, a state of emergency covering seven urban prefectures came into effect. Prefectural governments can ask businesses to close and they can reveal the names of those that ignore their requests, relying on shaming them publicly. However, they can’t force businesses to shut. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been reluctant to push for a strict lockdown for fear of further damaging the economy, which was on the brink of recession before the outbreak.

The state of emergency is no lockdown. Abe has been calling for an 80 per cent reduction in person-to-person contact and a 70 per cent cut in commuting. He has asked citizens to stay at home, although grocery shopping, hospital visits, jogging and going for walks are still allowed. 

People are surprisingly lackadaisical. Foot traffic in Shinjuku in central Tokyo was down last Friday (17 April), compared to the Tuesday before the state of emergency came into effect, but only by 33 per cent. Last weekend, pictures showed many people using the beach and surfing in the seaside town of Enoshima, an hour from Tokyo, and there were reports of busy hiking trails, beauty spots and even suburban shopping areas. 

ANA and JAL, the nation’s two biggest airlines, have suspended international flights, but their domestic networks are still operating. The two airlines normally operate around 800 domestic flights a day. Although demand has fallen by 90 per cent, they are still flying around 500 a day. 

Some economists are predicting unemployment in Japan will rise by over a million over the next 12 months, surpassing the fallout from the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. The government is keen to be seen to be doing something, though reluctant to take responsibility for paying people’s wages. On 7 April, it approved an economic relief package totalling ¥108.2 trillion (£810bn) to counter the fallout from the virus. This represents about 20 per cent of Japan’s gross domestic product. Abe has called the package the nation’s “largest ever”. 

The package is aimed at shoring up the public health care system and helping households. Abe has pledged to give ¥100,000 (£750) to every resident and up to two million yen (£15,016) to any small or midsize business whose sales have dropped by more than 50 per cent. 

Nonetheless, 64 per cent of the public disapproves of Abe’s handling of the virus outbreak, saying that he has been timid and sluggish, according to a survey by the Sankei newspaper. Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike’s no-nonsense approach has been better received. Her blunt warning to the capital’s residents and shop owners to stay at home and shut down to avert an explosive outbreak of the coronavirus has brought her long-time rivalry with Abe into focus.

But there are limits to what governor Koike can do. The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly has passed a supplementary budget of about ¥357 billion (£2.68bn) to compensate small businesses that comply with its request to shut down, but this only amounts to ¥500,000 (£3,759) per business. Many owners of izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) are siding with Abe’s more measured approach. Much as Governor Koike would like to shut down all eateries, the state of emergency doesn’t give her the authority to do so. For the time being at least, Tokyo’s izakaya remain in operation, albeit with reduced business hours.

There are signs the number of new Covid-19 cases may be slowing, too. The number of confirmed cases nationwide was above 500 per day last week, whereas it has dipped to over 300 this week. 

A key test will come in Golden Week, the first week of May, when city dwellers traditionally return to their hometowns to visit ageing parents and grandparents. Economic revitalisation minister Yasutoshi Nishimura is spearheading the government’s response to the coronavirus, and has asked people not to return to their hometowns as it could jeopardise the health of Japan’s 33 million senior citizens.

Tom Feiling is a writer and documentary-maker. His most recent book is The Island That Disappeared: Old Providence and the Making of the Western World

Free trial CSS