What Does Tokyo’s Second State of Emergency Mean?
People wait to cross a road in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, Japan. (Photographer: Soichiro Koriyama/Bloomberg)

What Does Tokyo’s Second State of Emergency Mean?

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and surrounding areas, as Covid-19 infections and the number of people in serious condition reach record levels.

The measure was imposed in the capital and three adjoining prefectures, running from Jan. 8 to Feb. 7, but can be lifted if infections fall below criteria laid out by the government. On the other hand, it could be expanded to cover more of the country if infections worsen, with areas including Osaka also experiencing a surge.

The emergency hands power to local governments to urge residents to stay home after 8 p.m. and order some businesses to limit operations, though authorities can’t force compliance for now. It would be the second such declaration, following a more stringent emergency beginning in April that was for a time extended across the whole country before being lifted as case numbers fell.

1. What does the emergency declaration mean?

Japan’s version of an emergency doesn’t result in the type of “lockdowns” seen in Europe. 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. The main effect will be to increase the powers of prefectural governors. Under an emergency, a governor can urge local people to avoid unnecessary outings, but residents have the right to ignore such requests, and there are no penalties for disobedience.

Remote working will also be encouraged, though schools won’t be closed across the board this time, and university entrance exams will go ahead as planned.

2. What about business?

Bars and restaurants are told to close at 8 p.m., but again there are no penalties for non-compliance. Major chains including McDonald’s Japan and KFC Japan are set to comply, while department store chain Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings will close 6 of its outlets at 7 p.m. Suga’s government is seeking to add penalties for businesses that don’t obey instructions, as well as formalize financial help for those that do, to a Special Measures Act on virus management. Punishments are already specified for a small number of offenses, including hiding supplies that have been requisitioned by local authorities.

Authorities are urging residents to work from home as much as possible, with the aim of cutting the number of commuters by 70%. A program of domestic travel incentives has already been suspended, and won’t be resumed while the emergency continues. Some rail companies are considering bringing forward the time of their last services at night, the Nikkei said. If necessary, the declaration also allows local authorities to control prices of daily essentials, provide loans through government-related financial institutions and make compulsory purchases of food and medicines.

3. Will people obey the requests?

People largely complied with government requests to refrain from going out during the previous state of emergency. But Suga said in a Jan. 4 press conference that the movement of people in the Tokyo area had not fallen much in December, despite pleas from local and national governments for people to stay at home. He said that meant a stronger message was needed for the capital and surrounding regions, where the number of new infections has recently accounted for half the national total. About 2,500 cases were found in Tokyo alone on Thursday. Even so, Japan’s cumulative tally of confirmed cases over the past year falls short of what the U.S. sometimes records in a day.

4. What could be the economic hit?

Suga said he wanted a limited and focused emergency aimed at reducing the risk of infections at bars and restaurants, which experts say are one of the main sites for transmission. Nonetheless, the Tokyo metropolitan area alone accounts for about one-third of the country’s gross domestic product, which would make it the world’s 11th largest economy. Bloomberg Economics’ Yuki Masujima sees the emergency declaration shaving up to 0.7% off the economy for each month it lasts.

5. What will it mean for the Olympics?

Suga reiterated Jan. 7 that he was determined to stage a safe Tokyo Olympic Games this year, with sufficient precautions in place. But the state of emergency, meant to curb people’s movement and business activities, is raising concerns over whether the Games will need to be canceled altogether. The Tokyo Olympics was officially delayed in March last year amid surging virus cases, with the government declaring an emergency shortly after the decision.

Japan has already stepped up border controls in response to the emergence of a more infectious mutation of the virus. The country considered a blanket entry ban for all non-resident foreigners, but chose to continue business travel with 11 countries and regions the Asahi newspaper reported. Nonetheless, the emergency could complicate the arrival of athletes, staff and spectators from around the world -- especially when polls show more than half of respondents want the Games called off or postponed.

6. What needs to happen for the emergency to be lifted?

The regions’ infection status will need to fall below the highest of four levels set by the government’s virus expert panel for the state of emergency to be revoked. That means, among several criteria, the number of new weekly cases per 100,000 people would need to fall under 25, far below the 62 recorded for Tokyo as of Thursday.

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