Japan’s Abe moves to declare state of emergency in Tokyo, Osaka


TOKYO • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe moved to declare a state of emergency in seven prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka, and announced a record economic stimulus package as the country braces for a surge in coronavirus infections.

Abe said the official announcement of a month-long emergency could come as soon today and also announced a much larger than expected stimulus package of ¥108 trillion (RM4.32 trillion) to support struggling households and businesses.

The emergency declaration — which will also cover Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Hyogo and Fukuoka prefectures — hands powers to local governments to try to contain the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, including urging residents to stay at home.

“We are not changing Japan’s policy, but strengthening it and asking for full cooperation,” Abe told reporters at his official residence. “I want to make clear once again that even if an emergency is declared, we will not impose a lockdown as has been done overseas. It is the opinion of our experts that this isn’t necessary.”

Public transportation will continue to operate and supermarkets will remain open, Abe said, emphasising that he wanted economic activity to continue as far as possible. Unlike countries like France — where residents can be fined for leaving their homes — there is no legal power to enforce limits on people’s movements.

The package of economic measures, set to be Japan’s biggest ever, surpassed the ¥60 trillion recommended by Abe’s ruling party last week. Details of the package are expected to be announced today.

Abe also said he plans to boost virus testing capacity to 20,000 a day, as well as increase the number of hospital beds and ventilators. He pledged cash handouts of ¥200 million to small and mid-sized businesses.

Japan was one of the first countries outside of the original epicentre in neighbouring China to confirm a coronavirus infection and it has fared better than most, with about 4,000 reported cases (at press time) as of yesterday — a jump from less than 500 just a month ago. That’s still the lowest tally of any Group of Seven country.

An emergency declaration enables local officials to take measures such as ordering the cancellation of events, restricting use of facilities such as schools and movie theatres and appropriating land or buildings for temporary medical facilities. The announcement comes after pressure from the public and the medical community.

As with many laws in Japan, there are no penalties associated with breaching instructions, except in the case of concealing supplies after the government orders them to be handed over. Even so, businesses are likely to further cooperate in closing shops and restaurants, while more residents are expected to stay indoors.

A state of emergency can stay in place for as long as two years and be extended by as much as one more year, under a law updated in March. The prime minister can make the call when the spread of the infection threatens serious damage to the lives and health of the people, as well as to the economy.

While Japan has so far experienced a less severe spread of Covid-19 than many other countries, experts fear the number of infections could shoot up at any time. Abe and other officials have repeatedly expressed reluctance to declare an emergency because of the restrictions on individual rights.