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JAPAN: Abe steps to the fore as government mobilizes to contain outbreak

Table of Contents

  • In a 29 February press conference, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he was responsible for the decision to request school closures from 2 March, warning that the first two weeks are critical for containing the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • The government is seeking a special measures law that would strengthen its ability to combat the outbreak and is exploring economic policy options for assisting families and businesses.
  • The Bank of Japan (BOJ) has also signaled its willingness to assist, although it is unclear whether it will introduce new policies at this stage of the crisis at its next policy meeting.

With the COVID-19 outbreak continuing to spread in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced new travel restrictions on Thursday, 5 March in a bid to limit the arrival of new cases from contact with foreign visitors to Japan. The new measures, which come after weeks of pressure on Abe from his own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to impose wider-reaching bans on foreign visitors from China, fall short of what has been demanded of the prime minister and show that Abe is still vulnerable to charges that his leadership has not been equal to the challenge posed by the outbreak.

New travel restrictions

The new restrictions announced Thursday widen existing travel bans – visitors who have recently been in Hubei and Zhejiang provinces in China and Daegu city and Cheongdo county in South Korea – to include all of North Gyeongsang province (which surrounds Daegu) and has also added Iran’s Qom province to the list. These restrictions were accompanied by new restrictions on all visitors from China and South Korea as the government wants to limit but not entirely stop the flow of visitors from Japan’s neighbors. Accordingly, through the end of March, the government will suspend some short-term visas already issued to South Koreans and Chinese; South Koreans and Chinese arrivals will be quarantined for two weeks upon arrival; and the only airports serving these countries will be Tokyo’s Narita airport and Osaka’s Kansai airport. Arrivals by sea will also be suspended.

Given these new restrictions, the Abe administration conceded that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan, planned for April, would have to be postponed. Xi’s visit was expected to be the culmination of three years of diplomatic outreach between Tokyo and Beijing, but the postponement is unlikely to derail the bilateral rapprochement. Chinese officials have supported the Abe government’s measured approach to travel restrictions even in the face of pressure from the LDP, and the two governments are looking at rescheduling the summit for later this year.

Emergency legislation takes shape

Meanwhile, the Abe government is moving quickly to pass legislation that will enable it to take more stringent measures to contain the outbreak. To some extent, the legislation has momentarily hindered efforts by the opposition to gain political advantage from the crisis. The opposition Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) has agreed to discuss revisions to the 2012 pandemic influenza special measures law with the LDP and not to prevent a bill’s passage on an aggressive timetable. The cabinet is expected to approve a bill for submission on Tuesday, 10 March and the Diet would pass the bill by the end of next week.

While the CDP and other opposition parties will not stand in the way of the swift passage of an emergency bill, they have nevertheless used negotiations with the LDP and the Abe administration to push back against Abe’s demands for more expansive emergency powers, arguing that the prime minister already has expansive powers that he has not deployed effectively to combat the outbreak. Even some ruling coalition lawmakers have raised concerns that the revisions desired by the government could sharply infringe individual rights. The Abe administration wants the power to declare a state of emergency, which would enable the governors of prefectures designated as being in an emergency the power to order schools and other public facilities closed (instead of making voluntary requests). It could also give the government the power to requisition private property as part of the preparation of emergency medical facilities. Opposition parties are also seeking a sunset clause on the state of emergency provisions, so that the powers would expire after two years.

As hinted previously, the Abe administration is also expected to unveil a separate spending package next week aimed at mitigating the economic impact of the outbreak.

Changing politics of the outbreak

Abe has clearly sought to use the debate over emergency legislation to shift the political narrative about the COVID-19 outbreak. “There are no government parties or opposition parties in a national emergency,” he said after a meeting of party leaders on 4 March. “We must work together to overcome it.” Having faced criticism for what was perceived a sluggish response during the early stages of the outbreak, Abe has continued to pursue more aggressive measures to contain the COVID-19 disease and has been more visible in defending his government’s approach.

Abe’s calls for national unity and willingness to work with opposition parties on legislation may soften some public criticism of his leadership. But, having introduced wider-reaching containment measures, most notably school closures, he is still vulnerable to criticism that he waited too long to take more aggressive steps and that his decisions have been driven more by political calculations than by expert guidance, especially if the outbreak widens dramatically. Abe remains particularly vulnerable in the event that the Tokyo Olympics are canceled, although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said this week that the games “can and will go ahead.” (At the same time, Seiko Hashimoto, minister of state for the Tokyo Olympics, suggested in the Diet Tuesday that the games could be postponed until later in 2020 if necessary.)


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JAPAN: Abe steps to the fore as government mobilizes to contain outbreak

In a 29 February press conference, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he was responsible for the decision to request school closures from 2 March,