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Japan Is Relying on Public Obedience to Clear Streets as Coronavirus Cases Rise

4 minute read

Japan’s coronavirus numbers have been ticking up, sparking alarm that it could be the next major country to see an explosive jump in infections. It’s also raising questions about whether Tokyo, where cases have tripled over the past 10 days, is about to go into a European-style lockdown — speculation the government is trying to squash. Even if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declares an emergency, 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 country’s strongest enforcement measure could be public obedience — and that may be enough.

1. Is Japan about to declare an emergency?

Japan’s ruling party politicians say: “No.” As of Wednesday, Japan had the fewest confirmed infections among Group of Seven leading economies at about 2,000 –compared to about 188,000 in the U.S. — despite being one of the first countries outside of original epicenter China to get confirmed cases. Abe’s government has said what could tip the scales would be infection numbers shooting up and strains appearing in the medical system. While Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has called for the government to make a decision, Abe said Wednesday there was no need to declare an emergency at this point.

2. What would an emergency declaration mean?

If Abe were to declare an emergency in a particular region, the main effect would be to increase the powers of the prefectural governor. The prevalence of the virus varies widely among the 47 prefectures. Under an emergency, a governor would be able to urge local people to avoid unnecessary outings, but residents would have the right to ignore the request, and there are no penalties for disobedience. Police wouldn’t be involved in enforcement, according to lawyer Koju Nagai of Answer Law Office in Kobe. While Koike warned last week that a “lockdown” could be coming, she cannot in fact restrict individuals’ movements. Businesses could be asked to shut down, and ordered to do so if they don’t comply with the request, but again there are no penalties for non-compliance. Punishments are, however, specified for a small number of offenses, including hiding supplies that have been requisitioned by local authorities.

3. Will people obey the requests?

The governors of Tokyo and surrounding prefectures asked people who didn’t need to be out to stay home last weekend and many did just that. A poll published by the Nikkei newspaper Monday showed 83% of respondents said they were avoiding going out, compared with 43% a month ago. Streets were mostly empty in the capital. Movie theaters shut down and businesses that stayed open saw fewer customers. In what could be seen as a partial success, the number of passengers on the Yamanote line that runs around central Tokyo fell by 70% on year, the Nikkei newspaper reported. Of course, there were people who ignored the requests, underscoring the limits of the powers of persuasion in a public health crisis.

4. What could be the economic hit?

The directive last weekend led companies including Starbucks Corp., retailing giant Aeon Co. and movie theater operator Toho Co. to temporarily shut some outlets. More businesses would likely follow suit if a request came again, but Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura on Tuesday warned that a lockdown of Tokyo or Osaka would deal a blow to the economy. 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. Banks are expected to remain open under any emergency declaration, and the Tokyo Stock Exchange said it will continue to operate.

5. Could Japan eventually take a harder line?

While England has just introduced a fine of about $75 for individuals breaching lockdown rules and Hong Kong warned residents of prosecution for violating quarantine measures, any attempt to add teeth to the Japanese law would raise hackles in the country, where painful memories of early 20th century authoritarianism linger. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations opposed the legislation under which an emergency can be declared, even though most of its stipulations cannot be enforced. “Emergency situations were misused a great deal in Japan before the war,” said lawyer Nagai. “Japan was hurt by that in the past. Freedoms were limited, and once those freedoms are limited, it’s hard to restore them.”

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