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Distrust between Japan gov't and Tokyo Gov. Koike laid bare by 'Go To' travel exclusion

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga is seen speaking at a press conference on July 17, 2020, at the prime minister's office in Tokyo. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- "Looking at it objectively, the number of new infections in Tokyo is spiking, and we're now in a situation where the capital accounts for about half of the people to have contracted the new coronavirus across the country," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at a July 17 press conference, emphasizing the reasons Tokyo was excluded from the government's "Go To Travel" domestic tourism promotion campaign.

Publically, the government's explanation for the restrictions on Tokyoites has been that they were needed to prevent people from the capital spreading the new coronavirus to regional Japan. But the reality is that Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's opposition to the nationwide scheme going into effect, and the government's distrust of her, led to Tokyo's exclusion from the "Go To" program.

The initiative is one of the government's flagship policies to revitalize an economy hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic. Figures in the government around Suga have been particularly critical of the move to cut the Japanese capital out, with one senior government official telling the Mainichi Shimbun, "If it's not nationwide, then there's no point."

But it was Koike who effectively stopped the program applying to people in Tokyo, with the first indications coming on July 4, when she advised residents in the capital to "refrain from unnecessary and non-urgent travel to other prefectures." On July 13 she referred to a statement by Suga where he said the increase in infections was a "Tokyo problem" to open fire onto the Go To plan, saying, "How does one formulate a response with both the air conditioning and the heating turned on?"

Then on July 15, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government raised its infections warning to its highest level, and pressure continued to be applied to the national government with a request for the policy to be re-examined, which included proposals for postponement.

From the point of view of the national government, the rise in infections in the capital was down to intense polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing efforts on people who'd been at restaurants and other businesses which afford close proximity with customers, and at locations with flourishing nighttime economies. Under this reasoning, it felt the Go To scheme could go ahead with Tokyo included.

On July 16, Suga said at a press conference, "The view that infections are spreading widely in town is not shown (in the data)." But the assault from Gov. Koike led to internal discussions in the ruling coalition about running the policy without Tokyo.

In the end, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to exclude Tokyo, but an individual connected to the government told the Mainichi on July 17, "We just did exactly as Gov. Koike said. The responsibility to explain the decision to the people lies, actually, with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government." They added, "The exclusion was something Gov. Koike wanted. That's the whole of it."

With the exclusion of Tokyo, the gulf between the prime minister's office and the Tokyo metro government has widened further. On the evening of July 16, the prime minister's office attempted to contact Gov. Koike just ahead of the official announcement that Tokyoites would not be eligible for the Go To scheme, but a senior official revealed to the Mainichi that "Gov. Koike did not come to the phone, and the information was relayed to her deputy."

On the same night, Gov. Koike expressed her frustration to a group of reporters, saying the government had given "no explanation." On the morning of July 17, a correction was issued by Koike saying that Economic Revitalization Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura had contacted her on the evening of July 16, but emphasized that "a detailed reason for why Tokyo would be excluded from the scheme was not forthcoming." The comments indicated a level of mistrust toward the central government's choice to openly cast out the capital.

(Japanese original by Koichi Uchida and Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

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