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Worried about economic damage, Japan gov't slow-playing coronavirus emergency

Economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura is seen speaking to reporters at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, on March 26, 2020. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Seeking to minimize the economic toll of the novel coronavirus state of emergency recently declared by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his government is holding to a policy of waiting to see how well stay-at-home requests limit the spread of the virus -- and avoiding business closures to prevent large gatherings.

"Experts believe that if the goal of reducing person-to-person contact by 80% can be achieved, we will see the effect of the measure in two weeks," economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, in charge of the special measures law to deal with the coronavirus, told reporters on April 9. The comment suggests that the government will keep prioritizing stay-at-home requests for the time being.

"If that 80% reduction is not met, then we will have no choice but to press ahead with stronger measures, such as asking for restrictions on the use of facilities."

During a meeting with Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and other officials on April 8, Nishimura didn't back down from the government's "two-phase" policy. "We don't even have to wait for two weeks. We can (assess the effects) by looking at big data and other information," Nishimura told Koike.

When the government revised a basic response policy under the coronavirus special measures law on April 7, in conjunction with the issuance of the state of emergency declaration, it specified that business suspension requests can only be made after "consulting with the state," stressing the need for central government involvement in the process. The passage was apparently incorporated as Koike suggested on the previous day that she intended to ask businesses to close down temporarily to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus.

A source close to the central government explained the state's reluctance to allow such requests, saying, "If a whole industry is designated (for business suspension requests), then other concerned parties can also be affected. If a clear-cut decision is made, it carries the risk of businesses necessary for our livelihoods becoming unsustainable."

A senior government official pointed out, "If Tokyo alone went ahead with (business closure requests), other prefectures must all follow suit," expressing concerns over possible repercussions on the economy as a whole.

Deep down, the Abe administration is hoping to avoid business cessation requests at all costs as they can deal a direct blow to the economy, as long as stay-at-home requests can help tamp down transmissions. If requests to halt businesses trigger a greater economic slowdown, the government's very political foundation -- centering on expectations for economic recovery -- can be undermined.

With regard to the conflicting positions of the central and Tokyo metro governments over the business response to the coronavirus, a former Cabinet member belonging to the ruling coalition noted, "The national government may apparently be unable to do anything because industry groups are pressuring them."

Kohei Otsuka of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, who chairs the party's caucus in the House of Councillors, told a media conference on April 9, "They (the Abe administration) failed tremendously to make prior adjustments and examinations. The government must have had ample time to coordinate following Gov. Koike's announcement, but what were they discussing? They should thoroughly reflect on their confusion."

(Japanese original by Hironori Takechi and Shuhei Endo, Political News Department)

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