Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has declared a month-long state of emergency in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and unveiled a record stimulus package aimed at steering the world’s third-largest economy through its biggest crisis since the war.
Abe told a televised news conference a recent sharp rise in Covid-19 cases in Tokyo and other urban areas had forced him to rethink Japan’s approach towards stemming the outbreak.
“We are not at a stage where rapid nationwide spread is being observed, but some areas are under pressure, so we don’t have the luxury of time,” he said, adding that the rise in infections was straining the country’s health service.
“To relieve that pressure there will have to be a transformation in people’s behaviour,” he said. “Preventing an explosion in cases, saving people in serious conditions and protecting you and your loved ones depends on how we change our behaviour.”
Abe asked people to reduce their contact with others by 70-80%, saying successful social distancing could see infections peak in two weeks. He called on non-essential workers to work from home and for companies to stagger shifts for employees who cannot remotely.
Invoking the community spirit that emerged in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster on Japan’s north-east coast nine years ago, Abe said: “That was a very difficult time, but the bonds that formed between people gave us hope. We are again facing a crisis, but if we work together, we will rise to the challenge and defeat this virus.”
The state of emergency will last until 6 May and initially apply to Tokyo and six other prefectures: Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures, which border the capital, Osaka and neighbouring Hyogo in the west, and Fukuoka in the south-west.
Japan has avoided the large number of Covid-19 cases and deaths that have prompted lockdowns in other countries, but there is growing alarm over the rise in infections in the capital, particularly among young people.
By Monday there were 1,116 confirmed infections in the metropolitan region of 14 million people. Nationwide, Japan has 3,906 confirmed cases, as well as a 712 from a cruise ship quarantined at Yokohama port near Tokyo, with 91 deaths.
While the figures are low compared to the US, China and parts of Europe, officials are concerned that Tokyo’s hospitals would be unable to cope with a surge in infections.
The declaration will give prefectural governors the authority to call on people to stay at home and for non-essential businesses to close, but will stop some way short of the stricter lockdowns in the US and parts of Europe.
Japan’s government does not have the legal authority to enforce a France-style lockdown with fines and other penalties. Instead, officials are hoping that jishuku – or self-restraint – and threats to name and shame businesses that refuse to close will ensure compliance. A poll conducted over the weekend by the TV network TBS found that 80% of respondents supported the move.
“This is not a lockdown of the kind that have happened overseas,” Abe said. “Public transport will run as usual, and no roads will be closed. There is no need for that. That is the view of the experts.”
Local authorities will, though, be able to force companies to sell their supplies of medicine and food, and to expropriate land and buildings for medical facilities.
Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, said the city would start transferring patients with no mild or no symptoms from hospitals to hotels and other accommodations to make room for an influx of more severe cases.
Abe’s apparent reluctance to implement tougher measures earlier in the crisis had drawn criticism from the Japan Medical Association and several local leaders.
Koike urged Tokyoites to cooperate with requests to keep their trips outside to a minimum. “It will cause inconvenience in daily life, but I call on everyone to cooperate, because lives are at stake,” she told reporters.
The majority of cases confirmed in the capital over the weekend involved people aged below 50, with many in their 20s and 30s, prompting speculation that bars, restaurants and clubs have become significant sources of infection.
Given their focus on highly populated urban centres, the measures are expected to hit consumption and production, raising fears that the crisis could send the world’s third-biggest economy into recession.
In response, the cabinet on Tuesday passed a record stimulus package in an attempt to contain the economic fallout from the outbreak. The measures, worth 108tn yen (£800bn) – or 20% of gross domestic product – include 39tn yen in direct spending.
Japan’s reluctance to introduce a more draconian lockdown stems in part from bitter memories of civil rights abuses during the days of militarism and the forced isolation of leprosy patients.
Hours before the state of emergency was made official, the hashtag “escape from Tokyo” began trending on social media, triggering calls for residents to stay put.
While there were no signs of an exodus, officials were concerned that some people would head for several prefectures that have not recorded a single case of Covid-19, including rural areas with large numbers of older people.
“Please do not go to rural areas, where there are large elderly populations who would be put at risk,” Abe said.