It is a policy that has troubled many people.
The government, they say, has grown tired of an explosion in infections in the capital and is still reluctant to introduce the kind of extreme measures needed to contain the virus – largely out of concern over its economic impact.
“It’s too late,” said Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College, London, which warns the Japanese capital may soon face the kind of catastrophic increase in infections and deaths experienced in New York.
“Tokyo has already entered an explosive phase, and the only way to stop the health care collapse was to lock in the city as early as possible.”
During an emergency, people will be asked to refrain from leaving, but there are no penalties for non-compliance. Companies will be asked to set up remote work, and local authorities may ask schools, cinemas and gyms to close, but trains will still run and “essential” services will remain open.
But what constitutes an important service? According to a draft plan for Tokyo obtained by the magazine Mainichi, health facilities, supermarkets, convenience stores, hotels, factories and public baths will remain open, while restaurants may be asked to reduce opening hours. Public transport will still be run.
Museums, libraries, barbers, internet cafes, department stores, shopping malls, bowling alleys and ice skating rinks may be asked to stop, although there may be exceptions for small businesses. The Tokyo government says it is still deciding whether bars, nightclubs and value-added companies that also offer food will be asked to close their doors.
For many experts, this is too little, too late.
Risk lighting flashed two weeks ago, with leading experts warning that a “second wave” of infections was already starting to take hold.
Even when it comes to problems, thousands of pachinko salons, cramped, smoky places that host a form of legalized gambling, remained open.
Six days ago, the Japan Medical Association warned that the medical situation had become critical and urged the government to declare an emergency.
On the same day, the Japan Society of Intensive Care Medicine said that the country had only five ICUs per 100,000 people, half of Italy, and warned “exceeding in terms of deaths will come very soon.” The government’s expert panel then said it was “very likely” that the disease was widespread.
That, says Shibuya, was pretty much the last chance to stop the explosion.
Still, during a Saturday meeting, the government was divided, with Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso opposing a declaration of emergency and warning that it would put the economy in “tough trouble,” the Asahi newspaper reported.
Part of the problem: Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has extremely close ties with the business community, while Abe himself is keen to preserve his long-standing attempt to revive Japan’s sluggish economy, known as Abenomics.
So while Abe was moving fast to ask schools across the country to close in late February – at a time when his own panel of experts said such a move was premature – he has been much slower to take measures that would undermine the economy.
In part, Japan has disappeared in a false sense of security, partly in the absence of extensive testing for the virus but also of its early success in containing the epidemic, which was based on tracking and isolating clusters of infections.
It was a sense of exceptionalism: that the widespread use of masks, good hygiene standards and lack of physical contact helped contain the virus, and that the country could avoid the kind of dramatic lockdowns seen in other parts of the world.
But as the virus grew and the cluster-based approach began to fail, the government was painfully slow to switch gears. Against a fast-moving virus, even a few days of delay can be crucial.
Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University, says the lack of tests created a lack of transparency, while the policies were inconsistent and lacking direction.
“The government is so much more focused on trying to provide lifelines to the corporate sector.”
Shibuya says the government’s panel of experts lacked the wide range of talent needed and ruled out the kind of outspoken academics who may have raised the alarm earlier. Instead, they have fallen in line with a set of policies that fit the government and corporate sector agendas.
Despite this, the tide can finally turn, with large companies now advocating a stronger action to combat the virus.
“I think the government was worried about the impact on the economy and that probably caused them to falter,” said Takahide Kiuchi, executive economist at Nomura Research Institute.
“But if you listen to large companies, they tend to be an emergency. They want to see conditions resolved earlier – even at the expense of immediate pain. There are small companies that want Abe not to act so soon. “
Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.