May 21, 2020

JAPAN: “New normal” takes shape as Abe further relaxes state of emergency

BY Tobias Harris

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( 5 mins)
  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced on Thursday, 21 May that he will lift the state of emergency for the greater Osaka region, including Osaka, Hyogo, and Kyoto prefectures.
  • The Abe administration is still refining its regime for containing new outbreaks, in part by studying what has happened in other countries after they have ended lockdowns.
  • The government is still calling for caution by individuals and businesses, suggesting that economic activity will still be relatively subdued and will require further stimulus.
  • As the Covid-19 outbreak has waned, politics is also returning to normal, resulting in more attention to Abe and his mooted prosecutorial reforms.

Abe lifted the state of emergency in greater Osaka in part because the rate of new infections in these prefectures was considerably less than the government’s target of 0.5 new infections per 100,000, and the government’s advisory panel judged that their ability to detect and contain new outbreaks was sufficient to justify the decision. To the extent that each prefecture has been developing its own plans for resuming business and social activities – particularly in Osaka, which already lifted business suspension requests for retail stores on 16 May based on its own “Osaka model” – Abe’s decision is mostly symbolic. Nevertheless, the impending end of the state of emergency marks the beginning of a new stage in Japan’s efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the meantime, the state of emergency remains in effect in five prefectures: Tokyo, its neighboring prefectures of Chiba, Saitama, and Kanagawa, and the northern island of Hokkaido. In announcing the decision, Abe suggested that the state of emergency could be lifted in the remaining prefectures as early as Monday, 25 May, depending both on the raw numbers of infections and the state of the medical infrastructure in both regions. However, given the tight integration between Tokyo and the other prefectures of the Kanto region, the government will not lift the state of emergency unless all four Tokyo-area prefectures have satisfied conditions proposed by Abe’s medical advisory panel – Kanagawa still has too many new infections for the state of emergency to be lifted for greater Tokyo.

Even as the state of emergency is lifted, the national government continues to refine its approach to containing new outbreaks. The testing regime – including both polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and antigen tests – is increasingly in place and available even to individuals with mild or no symptoms. The declining number of active cases not only means more resources will be available to handle subsequent outbreaks but the government will also be able to isolate mild cases in isolation facilities earlier. The weakest link is contact tracing, which, until a Bluetooth-based smartphone app based on the Apple/Google application programming interface is developed and deployed sometime in June, will continue to depend on cluster surveillance by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare’s (MHLW) cluster response team in coordination with local governments and public health centers to perform contact tracing.

As the economy reopens, the government will depend on the private sector to develop hygienic standards and individuals to avoid the “three C’s” (closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded places, and close-contact interactions), frequent handwashing, and mask wearing. Japan’s “new normal” will likely mean the continuing cancellation of public events and ongoing restrictions on facilities believed to be particularly high risk for triggering new clusters. For example, the Koshien high school baseball tournament, a major annual sporting event held every August, has already been canceled, the first time it has been canceled since World War II. Prefectures are only gradually moving to reopen schools. The administration and business associations have continued to stress that telecommuting should remain in greater use. The government is also beginning to reconsider how to relax travel restrictions and may start by opening to business travelers from a handful of countries with small numbers of cases. The foreign ministry is also studying how other countries are reopening their borders. The return of significant numbers of tourists is a distant prospect, however, and the administration is therefore bracing for longer-term effects of the pandemic on Japan’s economy, due both to ongoing limitations on individual and business activity and the impact the absence of significant numbers of tourists will have on hospitality, retail, and restaurant industries. Negotiations between the government and the ruling parties regarding a second supplemental budget are being conducted against this backdrop.

One consequence of the steady decline of the number of new cases and the relaxation of the state of emergency is that normal politics is resuming. This is particularly challenging for Abe, as it means there has been significantly more opposition and media attention paid to his suspended effort to change prosecutorial tenure laws. Abe’s decision to shelve the legislation until the autumn, far from ending the controversy, has led to additional pressure on the prime minister from within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to withdraw the legislation entirely. Abe has been further undermined by the resignation of Tokyo high prosecutor Hiromu Kurokawa, whose career Abe had hoped to extend in order to name him as prosecutor general. Kurokawa’s position became untenable after a tabloid reported that he had played mahjong for money with several reporters even as Tokyo has been subject to the state of emergency. (While the gambling would be against the law, it seems that the flagrant flouting of social distancing – for which Kurokawa apologized in a statement – may be seen as the greater offense, suggesting different standards of conduct in the new Covid-19 order.) Kurokawa’s resignation and the government’s motivations in pushing for the reform will figure prominently until the Diet session ends on 17 June. The scandal is unlikely to interfere with the passage of a second supplemental budget but the scandal will increase the government’s urgency to pass a new budget without having to extend the legislative session, which would give the opposition more time to question Abe about the “politics and prosecutors” issue.

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