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July 14, 2020

JAPAN: National government continues to clash with governors over rising cases

BY Tobias Harris

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  • The Abe government and the Tokyo metropolitan government have clashed over how to respond to the growing number of Covid-19 confirmed cases, centered mainly in Tokyo.
  • The national government may be willing to consider some restrictions on high-risk facilities, but is determined not to modify its program for reopening the economy this summer.
  • The Abe government also faces risks in Okinawa, where clusters at US military bases have prompted charges from local officials that the US military is not being transparent enough.

Although Tokyo’s number of new cases was below 150 for two days this week after five days with more than 200, Japanese authorities continue to face a steady increase in new cases that could threaten the Abe government’s reopening plans and raise tensions between national and prefectural government officials as they debate who should be responsible for ensuring that the new clusters do not become a widespread second wave. The upshot is that while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s approval ratings have stabilized – to the point that speculation about a snap election later this year has resumed – the pandemic still looms as a threat to his government.

The spike in new cases has revealed the competing interests of national and local governments. The Abe government, having largely suppressed the first wave and lifted the nationwide state of emergency, has shifted decisively in favor of measures to reopen Japan’s economy and adapt to a “new normal.” Prefectural governors, however, are increasingly cautious about reopening, and are wary of the national government’s determination to encourage more domestic travel.

The most significant dispute is between senior Abe government officials and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. Less than a week after Koike was reelected as governor thanks in part to the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) support, she has been engaged in a war of words with the national government who is primarily responsible for containing the new clusters. After Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga referred to the latest spike as a “Tokyo problem,” Koike criticized that Abe government for its decision to launch of the “Go To” campaign – an incentive program for domestic travel – on 22 July instead of in August, arguing that the government is sending mixed signals that could lead asymptomatic individuals to spread the virus across the country. Koike is not the only governor to criticize the tourism campaign. Over the past week, 37 prefectures have reported new cases, an increase from 29 the previous week, and local officials and public health experts are imploring the Abe government to reverse its decision.

The current outbreak is not yet as severe as in April, when the Abe government imposed a state of emergency first in Tokyo and its neighboring prefectures and then for the whole country. In Tokyo, the number of severe cases and cases requiring hospitalization are significantly lower than at the peak of the first wave. The share of cases with no known origin is also rising, although this number is also significantly lower than at the peak. The dispute between the national and regional governments is therefore about risk assessment, as authorities try to assess how much spread they can tolerate before they have to reintroduce restrictions. Despite its determination to not reverse or delay steps towards a fuller resumption of economic activity, the Abe government may be considering measures to control higher-risk facilities, including “host clubs” and other nightlife venues. Some prefectures have already indicated that they will request that establishments that fail to respect public health guidelines should close, and on Monday, Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura hinted that the national government could be prepared to back this approach. But the clashing interests between the Abe government and prefectural governors will remain as long as the case count remains elevated.

US military clusters

At the same time, the Abe government increasingly finds itself stuck between the US and Okinawa’s prefectural government after at least 100 individuals connected to the US military in the prefecture were found to have Covid-19. The Abe government wants to shield the US-Japan alliance from any local backlash, while protecting public health; local governments, particularly in Okinawa, which hosts the majority of US forces in Japan, want the US to be more transparent about infections among its personnel (and anti-base politicians may try to use the infections to press the case against US bases in the prefecture). The Okinawan public already views US bases – particularly the Futenma Marine Corps air station – unfavorably, and has continued to vote for politicians who want to remove them from the prefecture entirely. The prospect of Covid-19 spreading unchecked among US military personnel and their dependents could exacerbate tensions between the US and the prefectural government and host communities in Okinawa. Governor Denny Tamaki has complained that US military authorities have not been entirely transparent about the number of cases on US facilities and have not adequately shared information about where infected individuals went in order to aid local contact tracers. Tamaki has also questioned the US military’s public health practices: “We have strong doubts about the measures to prevent the spread of the virus.” Suga insisted Monday that local public health centers have received all of the information they need from the US military hospitals.

The infections on US bases could remain an issue. There are roughly 100,000 Americans in Japan as service members, dependents, or civilian employees, and in early June the Department of Defense lifted a stop movement order that prevented personnel from traveling to or from Japan. On Monday, the government of Yamaguchi prefecture in western Japan confirmed that three people connected to the Iwakuni Marine Corps air station in the prefecture had tested positive after arriving at Haneda airport in Tokyo but traveled onward to Iwakuni before receiving their results. While the affected bases in Okinawa are locked down, if Covid-19 were found to have spread from the US military to host communities, it could become a political liability for the Abe government.

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