With world on war footing, cautious Abe declares emergency

Linda J. Dodson

TOKYO — On Sunday afternoon, two days before declaring a state of emergency for Tokyo, Osaka and five other prefectures, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe corralled a handful of key officials involved in the coronavirus response.

A larger meeting of the task force had just concluded a short update meeting, and the prime minister asked a few members, including Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura and Health Minister Katsunobu Kato, to stay in the room.

“I want to declare a state of emergency as soon as possible,” Abe told them.

The 65-year-old leader, the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, had until then been cautious about making such a call. This owed in no small part to the devastating impact it would have on the economy, one of the stronger elements of his seven years in office.

But Tokyo had confirmed 143 new cases that day, double the number just five days earlier — an alarming pace of acceleration akin to that seen in the U.S.

At that point, the government had yet to work out the logistical details of a state of emergency, such as how much power would be delegated to prefectural governments.

Some at the meeting tried to dissuade Abe at first, warning that a declaration at that time would set off a panic. But the prime minister held firm, and the gathering served as a turning point in the government’s preparations for the declaration, which ultimately came on Tuesday evening.

The decree was an agonizing decision for a leader focused on economic revival. But mounting strain on the health care system from a rising tide of COVID-19 cases, along with growing public calls for action, left little choice.

Other world leaders battling the pandemic took more drastic action earlier. French President Emmanuel Macron on March 16 ordered citizens to stay home for 15 days, declaring that “we are at war.”

On March 18, U.S. President Donald Trump, calling himself a “wartime president,” invoked a Korean War-era law that would let Washington force private-sector businesses to produce necessary medical equipment.

The war metaphors resonated with Abe. Since before the coronavirus crisis, the Japanese leader has identified with Winston Churchill, the prime minister who led the U.K. against Nazi Germany in World War II and won the public’s trust while speaking honestly about the challenges they faced. Abe from time to time rereads a biography of Churchill titled “Never Despair.”

Yet he remained reluctant at first to declare a state of emergency that would risk serious disruption to Japan’s economy. Even when Tokyo authorities asked residents March 25 to stay inside over the weekend, the prime minister insisted in private that the central government “has to wait and see a little longer.”

He was swayed in part by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. As the virus spread in the capital, the governor appeared at news conferences and in online videos urging Tokyoites to stay home and putting pressure on the government to act. On March 23, she warned that a lockdown may become necessary if infections surge.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike speaks to reporters on Monday, one day before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s state of emergency declaration. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Abe’s stance began to shift amid the steep rise in new cases this month and a growing share of untraceable infections in Tokyo.

Rumors spread online that the government would declare a state of emergency April 1 and lock down cities the following day. Even conservatives who normally support Abe voiced frustration over the lack of an emergency decree.

The prime minister began laying the groundwork for a state of emergency, explaining to lawmakers what would happen and allaying concerns about the sort of coercive actions seen in the U.S. and Europe. “Can we do a France-style lockdown? The answer is no. That’s where the misunderstanding is,” he said April 1.

Meanwhile, concerns grew among the public that hospitals could be overwhelmed without a state of emergency to curb the outbreak. Yoshitake Yokokura, president of the Japan Medical Association, said April 1 that hospitals are in a “state of crisis” and warned that waiting to act until after cases start to skyrocket would be “too late.”

When Nishimura posted a video Friday on Twitter explaining that a state of emergency would not entail lockdowns, it was retweeted numerous times by netizens pressing for an emergency decree. Nishimura himself recommended such a move to Abe, as did an expert panel assembled by the government.

Koike’s explanation Friday of how Tokyo would respond to an emergency declaration seemed meant to nudge Abe in that direction as well. After new daily cases in Tokyo reached the triple digits for the first time Saturday, Koike said on NHK the following morning that “we need to make a decision as a nation.”

Tuesday’s declaration covers seven prefectures and is now set to run through May 6. If this fails to prevent an explosive surge in cases, the government may face calls to extend or expand it.

“One month is the most we can ask the public to bear this for,” a senior official said.

The decree appears to be raising problems of its own. Tokyo said Tuesday that it would not decide yet which businesses need to close under the state of emergency, with Koike saying only that the capital is ironing out differences with the central government.

Tokyo had planned to call for closures of a broad range of facilities, including department stores, universities and hair salons.

But Abe on Tuesday night called hair salons and barbershops “essential” and noted that such businesses have yet to be linked to clusters of coronavirus cases. He also stopped short of recommending that restaurants be shut down, instead urging such steps as improving ventilation and spacing out seating.

Nishimura, who is discussing the matter with Koike, said a decision should come in the next several days.

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