TOKYO (Kyodo) — A state of emergency is set to be declared in parts of Japan most heavily hit by the spread of the coronavirus. So how will life change for residents?
In practice, not as much as you might think. People will be instructed to stay at home except to carry out important tasks such as purchasing food and daily supplies, or seeking medical care. Working from home will be encouraged.
Essential businesses such as supermarkets, convenience stores and pharmacies will remain open, though panic buying and hoarding of everyday necessities like toilet paper could become worse.
Places where people gather in large numbers such as theaters, concert halls, and sports stadiums may be ordered to close, and major events canceled or postponed.
But many department stores and shops in Tokyo have shuttered of their own accord during the past two weekends and there were far fewer people on the streets than usual.
In Tokyo and other parts of the country including Osaka, many schools have already decided not to resume classes until the Golden Week holidays end on May 6. That could be extended, while nurseries and care facilities for the elderly, which have so far remained open, may also be asked to close.
Public transportation will continue to operate, although there may be changes to schedules or reduced services depending on demand. East Japan Railway Co., which serves Tokyo and the surrounding area, reported a 30 percent drop in passengers on its Yamanote Line on the weekend of March 28 to 29, when Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike asked the capital’s 14 million residents to stay at home. She made the same request for the following weekend.
Central Japan Railway Co., which runs shinkansen bullet trains connecting Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, will “ensure continued service even during an emergency,” promised President Shin Kaneko.
Under the revised law that gives Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the power to declare a state of emergency, the government can make “comprehensive arrangements” with “designated public organizations” such as railway operators, utilities and public broadcaster NHK, but it does not say that services can be stopped altogether.
“Transportation is important infrastructure that supports people’s lives and economic activities. We must maintain its function,” transport minister Kazuyoshi Akaba has said.
Meanwhile, the number of international and domestic flights in Japan has plunged as people avoid traveling for fear of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
An airline official said regardless of whether a state of emergency is declared, decisions regarding flight schedules would continue to be driven by how much demand there is.
In the financial sector, Japan Exchange Group Inc. CEO Akira Kiyota has confirmed that in principle, trading on the Tokyo Stock Exchange will continue as usual. Banks and other financial institutions will also remain open.
The big difference between Japan and other parts of the world battling the coronavirus is that authorities in the country have little legal power to enforce a strict lockdown. The revised law does not provide for any penalties for ignoring instructions to remain at home.
In the United States, many states have ordered people to remain at home unless they are carrying out essential tasks, and when outside to stay a couple of meters from others. In New York City, breaking social distancing rules carries a fine of $250 to $500.
France, which is among the most heavily hit countries in Europe, has been under a stringent lockdown since March 17. Armed soldiers and police officers patrol the streets and people who repeatedly venture out without a good reason can be fined up to 3,700 euros.
Abe told a parliamentary committee earlier this month, “Can Japan impose a lockdown in the same manner as France? The answer is no.”
While in Japan people will only be requested by authorities to remain at home, Tetsuro Kawamoto, a former Doshisha University law professor, said most people are likely to comply.
“It may be necessary to create penalties if the coronavirus situation continues for a long time, but that would be a last resort,” Kawamoto said.