Japan Virus Surge Raises Worries Over New Tokyo Emergency

The governors of Tokyo and Osaka opened the door to declaring another virus emergency in Japan’s biggest metro areas as infections surge, adding to the challenges facing an Olympics that’s less than 100 days away in the capital.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told reporters late Sunday she had instructed officials to consider a state of emergency as an option to contain infection numbers that rose over the weekend to the highest in more than two months, when the last declaration was in effect in the capital. Her comments came as a new survey showed broad opposition to holding the delayed 2020 Games in the city.

In Osaka, Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura told a news conference Monday he is set to seek a state of emergency as infection numbers hit record highs this month. The public statements put pressure on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government to make a decision, which local media said could come as early as this week.

Suga, who would make the call after consulting experts, earlier this month stepped up virus restrictions in Tokyo, Osaka and other regions, imposing measures similar to those under an emergency. The prime minister now has little left in his toolbox to control the latest surge, with vaccinations proceeding at a slow pace and not set to kick into high gear until May.

The measures now in place call on bars and restaurants to close by 8 p.m., and those that fail to comply face fines. Incentives are provided to eateries that follow virus guidelines, such as maintaining sufficient space between tables.

Even under the current measures, commuter trains are packed, while crowds flock to stores and restaurants. Civil liberties enshrined in the Japanese Constitution prevent imposing a lockdown backed by police action.

Tokyo may be looking to step up those restrictions by asking restaurants to close if a state of emergency is declared, TV network TBS reported, without saying where it obtained the information. If measures are tightened beyond the current restrictions, it could raise the risk of a double dip recession and deal a heavy blow to thousands of eateries struggling to survive.

“If not only restaurants, but also other shops are asked to close, the economic impact can be big, and we may see another contraction in the second quarter,” said economist Harumi Taguchi at IHS Markit.

The Japanese premier faces a backlash from a public worried the Summer Olympics -- one of the biggest global events of the pandemic era -- could be a superspreader event. The Games have already been delayed a year, and 73% of those surveyed over the weekend said they were against the event being held as planned from July, according to a poll conducted by Japanese broadcaster ANN.

About the same percentage of respondents wanted the government to declare a state of emergency and enact stricter prevention measures. Recorded daily cases in Tokyo hit 759 Saturday, the highest since the end of January.

Suga has tried to move the economy forward while keeping cases in check to appease voters, many of whom see him as being slow in imposing measures to stem infections and as putting the economy before public health concerns. The premier needs to strike a careful balance ahead of a party leadership vote in September that will determine whether he stays on -- or joins the long roster of short-lived leaders.

Suga visited Joe Biden at the White House on Friday, becoming the first foreign leader to hold an in-person meeting with the U.S. president since he took office. Biden reiterated his support for Tokyo hosting the Olympics at the summit.

Suga, who has touted the Olympics as an opportunity to prove the world has defeated the virus, has faced pushback from within his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Last week, LDP stalwart Toshihiro Nikai indicated canceling the Tokyo Games was an option as the country struggles with the surge in cases.

Despite the rising numbers in Japan, the country by far has the fewest recorded Covid-19 cases and deaths of any Group of Seven country.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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