For months, the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has caused unparalleled disruption across the globe – schools, offices and shops have been forced to close as people retreat in self-isolation under strict government controls. In Japan, although the government has urged people to work from home if possible and only go out when necessary, those requests have never been legally enforced.
As countries in Europe and Asia are cautiously easing some restrictions, and Japan's own state of emergency is set to expire at the end of May, you might be wondering why Japan hasn’t taken the same approach seen overseas and enacted a national lockdown.
Why aren’t there more restrictions on travelling and non-essential outings?
Even if the government wanted to implement a hard lockdown, freezing public transport and imposing penalties on individuals who break the rules, it would be nearly impossible to do so under the country's current constitution.
Japan's post-war constitution included stronger protections of individual freedom, and since the war, politicians and the public have been wary of far-reaching government powers. That means the most the Japanese government can do under a state of emergency is strongly request for the cooperation of citizens and urge them to follow its recommendations.
Why did Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declare a national state of emergency?
Although declaring a nationwide state of emergency isn't quite the same as a national lockdown, doing so meant governors could issue (non-legally binding) requests for businesses in their prefectures to close, as well as give clearer domestic travel advice to their residents. It also gave the national government the power to clear buildings to be used as temporary medical facilities if necessary.
What will easing restrictions mean in Japan?
Although Abe extended the current state of emergency until May 31, he will be meeting with experts around May 14 to discuss the situation and decide whether some restrictions can be eased before the end of the month.
In Japan, residents have always been free to leave their homes for any reason at any time without consequence. However, easing restrictions would allow schools, museums, libraries and other businesses that were temporarily closed to reopen again, albeit with strict social distancing measures in place.
How should people protect themselves and others from a second wave of infection?
The Prime Minister has said that even after the national state of emergency is lifted, a second wave of infection is a looming possibility. In fact, Dr Shigeru Omi, a member of the committee of experts that advises Abe, has indicated that's why Japan hasn't tried to close more businesses under the current state of emergency. According to the Financial Times, Oni said, 'Maybe there’ll be another small wave or a big wave depending on how people behave... That’s why we want to balance the maintenance of socio-economic activity with managing this outbreak.'
In the meantime, Abe has encouraged people to embrace a 'new lifestyle'. He also advised against eating side-by-side with others and talking on public transport, in order to minimise the risk of infection.
Stay safe and informed