Japan Government Holds Off on Tokyo’s State of Emergency Request

Japan’s central government held off from declaring a state of emergency in Tokyo and three adjacent prefectures, despite local authorities urging virus czar Yasutoshi Nishimura to do so to contain an outbreak that is showing little sign of abating.

The government will consult experts again before making a decision, Nishimura said at a press conference Saturday after a three-hour meeting with governors from Tokyo and surrounding prefectures.

“We agreed that the metropolitan area is in a situation severe enough to bring a state of emergency into sight,” Nishimura said. The request by the four governors will be studied, he said.

Nishimura said the central government will ask the four prefectures to request restaurants and bars to stop serving alcohol at 7 p.m., and shut at 8 p.m. The government will also ask people to not go out after 8 p.m. unless there’s an essential or urgent need, and will support stores that comply with the request, he said.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and the governors of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama made the request directly to Nishimura Saturday at the cabinet office, amid renewed records of coronavirus cases. Together the four prefectures account for more than a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product.

“Our response measures have had some impact,” said Koike, speaking to reporters at the same press conference. “But looking at the number of infections and the state of the health system in our four prefectures, there’s an immediate need to suppress people’s movements.”

Japan’s capital reported a record 1,337 new coronavirus cases on New Year’s Eve, as the onset of cold weather fueled infections even after the city stepped up its containment efforts. On Saturday, the number of serious cases rose to the highest since May 3.

Japan Government Holds Off on Tokyo’s State of Emergency Request

Japan briefly enacted a state of emergency during April and May in response to the initial wave of coronavirus cases. Earlier this week, Nishimura said the country could consider an emergency if infections continue at the current rate. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga brushed past direct questions about it Thursday evening in remarks to reporters.

An emergency declaration enables local officials to take measures such as ordering the cancellation of events, restricting the use of facilities such as schools and movie theaters, and appropriating land or buildings for temporary medical facilities.

Due to civil liberties enshrined in Japan’s postwar constitution, the government cannot send police to clear people off the streets, as has happened in places including France, Italy and the U.K.

It lacks the legal means to compel a European style lockdown, and its ability to contain the virus’s spread without one is now coming under question. In addition, officials have been avoiding heavy restrictions as they try to get the country’s pandemic-hit economy back on track.

The impact of any emergency declaration though is likely to be more of a psychological move. Tokyo had already requested that restaurants shut at 10 p.m., and the metropolitan government had been urging people to stay home with their families during the new year holidays.

The government is considering changes to a law for virus management to give containment measures more power. That amendment would let Japan penalize bars and restaurants that don’t comply with instructions to close early. The change would need to be approved by parliament, which will only begin later this month.

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