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PM Abe's 'hard-line' entry controls timed to keep face with China, Japan conservatives

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen during the House of Councillors plenary session on March 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's apparent "hard-line" turn to step up entry restrictions on people from China and South Korea as a way to help curb the novel coronavirus outbreak was intended to keep face both with China and the right wing of his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Meanwhile, some officials have expressed skepticism of the move's efficacy, pointing out that infections are already spreading within Japan.

Japan announced on March 5 that it would ask those traveling from China and South Korea to go into a two-week quarantine after arrival, and that it would revoke some visas issued to travelers from those two countries, among other measures.

Seiichi Eto, state minister for Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs, welcomed the higher entry restrictions, telling reporters on March 6, "I appreciate (Prime Minister Abe's) bold decision."

Eto is a senior member of a panel of lawmakers supporting the Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) conservative group, to which Abe and other prominent LDP members also belong. Eto had been lobbying the prime minister to beef up entry controls on those traveling from China.

LDP House of Councillors member Shigeharu Aoyama and other conservative lawmakers have been telling Abe and related parties since January that they were opposed to Chinese President Xi Jinping's planned state visit in April, and that Japan needed to suspend accepting tour groups from China. However, Prime Minister Abe at first balked at implementing stiff entry control measures to avoid any negative impact on Xi's visit. Even his friend and author Naoki Hyakuta reacted critically to this, tweeting, "The Japanese government's inability to manage a crisis is showing."

When it comes to managing his government, Abe has been extremely careful to keep his "friends" close. At the very end of their summit talk in December 2019, he told Xi about Tokyo's concerns over the activities of Chinese government vessels near the disputed Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture and other issues. According to a source knowledgeable about Japan-China diplomatic relations, Xi was even about to take out his interpretation earpiece when Abe asked him to hold on, and just tacked on a comment about these concerns. Regardless, the prime minister told a news conference on the following day, "I presented (Japan's concerns to Xi) myself," trying to win applause from conservatives.

LDP lawmaker Aoyama writes in his blog that Abe told related parties behind closed doors to consider greater entry restrictions around Feb. 21. With some options in hand, Abe then had dinner with Hyakuta and others at his official residence on the night of Feb. 28. Hyakuta later tweeted, "We had a good talk." Conservatives in Japan cheered when the prime minister announced Japan's plan to restrict entries from China on March 5.

It was a carefully timed announcement, coming on the same day as Tokyo and Beijing both confirmed Xi's spring state visit had been postponed due to the outbreak, and thus allowing the Abe administration to keep face with China even as Japan pushed for a "hard-line" measure against its neighbor.

However, Japan's virus countermeasures at its border had already failed and infections have spread domestically, with there has been a sharp decline in the number of inbound tourists. A senior official at the prime minister's office says the recent number of visitors from China is less than 1,000 per day and roughly 2,000 from South Korea, and speculates that greater entry controls would have only limited success.

(Japanese original by Kazuhiko Hori, Political News Department)

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