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Regional governor under fire over warm welcome to Tokyoites during virus crisis

Ishikawa Gov. Masanori Tanimoto is seen at a press conference in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, on March 31, 2020. (Mainichi/Hirotaka Abe)

KANAZAWA -- With Tokyoites being urged to refrain from leaving their homes on weekends to help stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, the governor of the central Japan prefecture of Ishikawa has made a direct appeal to the capital's citizens to visit the area and support its tourism industry.

On March 27, Gov. Masanori Tanimoto said, "We would welcome people (from Tokyo) without symptoms visiting." He appeared to be showing concern for Ishikawa Prefecture's local economy, which has been suffering a fall in tourism revenue since the novel coronavirus began to spread. The area is popular in Japan and among foreign tourists for its well-preserved traditional architecture and other attractions.

But many local governments across Japan's regions have urged caution against the coming and going of people from the capital, and some individuals in Ishikawa Prefecture have also expressed concern over the governor's divergent remarks.

A panel of experts for the national government has also put out calls for people to be vigilant against infection from individuals without symptoms. One expert has gone further, saying, "This is absolutely not the time for people to be relaxing their guard."

Ishikawa Prefecture had been refraining from holding all official events, but its policy switched on March 20. At a meeting on March 27, Gov. Tanimoto announced that the city of Kanazawa's Kenrokuen, considered one of Japan's three most beautiful gardens, will allow the public to enter free of charge, among other measures.

Speaking to reporters after the announcement, he sent a message to the capital's citizens "tired of staying indoors" by saying, "If you want to give yourself a break, we would welcome people (from Tokyo) without symptoms visiting. We have the shinkansen, and you can get here in two and a half hours."

Visitors are seen taking in blooming sakura at Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, on March 30, 2020. (Mainichi/Chinatsu Ide)

By March 27, the same day as his comments were issued, Ishikawa Prefecture had already confirmed eight coronavirus infections.

Tanimoto has said that the prefecture's present classification under a national government ranking of infections is equivalent to "either a point where we are moving toward containment, or are containing the virus to some extent." The prefectural government confirmed that it would reopen some events after taking preventative measures to exclude areas with enclosed spaces, where many people gather and where people could come into close contact.

In the background to all of these moves is the prefecture's deteriorating financial situation. From Jan. 25 to March 12, the equivalent of 66,266 nights in hotels and other accommodation facilities had been canceled, and it appears possible the economic lift the region has enjoyed since the Hokuriku Shinkansen extension opened in the area in 2015 could suddenly stop.

But with the number of cases where the route of infection is unknown continuing to rise in the capital, and fears of an explosive surge in coronavirus patients heightening with it, Tokyo residents were asked on March 25 to refrain from going outside on weekends.

Outside of Tokyo, regional authorities have begun issuing similar requests over fears of people coming and going to the areas. The Iwate Prefectural Government in northeastern Japan has asked any people coming from the Tokyo metropolitan area to stay indoors for all but essential reasons for two weeks, and the Saga Prefectural Government has issued leaflets asking people returning to their family homes from outside the southwestern Japan prefecture and others to curb their trips outside.

The national government's panel of experts advised on March 19 that "we are seeing many instances of people with no symptoms or light symptoms who are unwittingly furthering the spread of the virus."

Erisa Sugawara, a professor in infection control at Tokyo Healthcare University, was critical of the move by the Ishikawa governor, saying, "It's one thing for tourists to show up naturally of their own accord, but what does it say if the governor is putting these feelings into words and calling for people to come?"

She added that many asymptomatic people staying in the region will throng to shopping districts and other busy areas, saying, "It would be fine if it were possible to guarantee that people will be able to avoid the three conditions that the government has said increase chances of transmission, but I think that basing it on a belief that Ishikawa is relatively unaffected so far isn't really enough."

Ishikawa Prefecture has confirmed another five infections as of March 31, with three of them contracting the virus from unknown sources. Speaking to the Mainichi Shimbun on the same day, Gov. Tanimoto said, "We don't know if there are asymptomatic people around," and, "It's not necessary for us to say 'Don't come.'"

But people working in the tourism business in the south of the prefecture aired more complex feelings, with one saying, "It's not a joyful proclamation saying we're open to all." Others have offered discount plans and other packages to entice customers, but many are also worried about the movement of people within the prefecture bringing with it further spread of the virus. One prefectural government worker who is involved with the formulation of its tourism policies even said, "Now isn't the time to be encouraging people to come to Ishikawa Prefecture."

But on March 30, the first day that Kenrokuen was made free to enter, visitors from in and outside of the prefecture came to take in its sights of freshly blooming sakura. A university student who came from Tokyo said of Gov. Tanimoto's statements, "I'm happy that I could be welcomed here without any awkward feeling. I've been avoiding leaving the house, so it was a good change of pace for me."

(Japanese original by Hirotaka Abe and Chinatsu Ide, Hokuriku Bureau)

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