TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a month-long state of emergency covering seven prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka on Tuesday (April 7), urging people to drastically reduce contact as the coronavirus pandemic shows little signs of abating.
The latest move in Japan's war against Covid-19 followed criticism over haphazard policies like premature calls for schools to close, and as under-testing cast doubt on the actual scale of the outbreak.
The declaration, criticised by some as coming too late, does not invoke any criminal penalties nor restrict any movement. Instead, the government hopes it will keep people off the streets and instil a sense of crisis that has, until recently, been severely lacking.
Mr Abe stressed that Japanese cities are not under lockdown like that in foreign cities, with public transport still running and essential services like banks, supermarkets and post offices in operation.
The declaration covers Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama in the Greater Tokyo region, which is the world's most populated metropolitan area, as well as Osaka and Hyogo prefectures in the Kansai region and Fukuoka on Kyushu island.
These seven prefectures together are home to 56.1 million people, or about 44.5 per cent of Japan's overall population of 126 million.
"It is important that people behave on the belief that they are already infected and are carriers of the coronavirus," Mr Abe told a news conference.
He exhorted the public to reduce human interaction "by 70 to 80 per cent", so that the number of cases will peak in two weeks and then decline while still maintaining economic activity as far as possible.
The call comes as the number of cases rose by 347 - including 80 in Tokyo - to 4,445 as of 11pm last night. A majority of the cases in Tokyo in the past week are under 40 years old, and at least 70 per cent have no known links of transmission.
The Cabinet on Tuesday signed off on emergency measures worth 108 trillion yen (S$1.4 trillion), or one-fifth of gross domestic product, in what is Japan's biggest-ever stimulus package.
Mr Abe appealed for calm and rationality - "panic will have a worse impact than the virus" - even as he painted the worst-case scenario if the public did not do its part: there could be as many as 80,000 cases by next month.
He urged the public to defer all unnecessary travel to less-affected regions as terms like "escape from Tokyo" trended on social media.
The seven prefectures were chosen on the basis of criteria like the rate of increase in confirmed cases. This means Aichi prefecture in central Japan, where Nagoya is located, was excluded despite recording the fifth-most infections.
Hokkaido, which made a unilateral state of emergency declaration in late February without any input from the national government, was also not on the list, having succeeded in curbing the spread of the virus.
With the state of emergency declaration, the public has been asked to exercise "self-restraint" and avoid going out unnecessarily.
Outdoor activities such as jogging are allowed, Mr Abe said, adding that the public should avoid at all costs the three Cs of closed spaces, crowded areas and conversations in close proximity.
Local governments may name and shame leisure establishments in a bid to pressure them to suspend operations, though this will not carry any criminal penalties.
Many shopping malls, karaoke bars, sports gyms, cinemas and even pachinko parlours have said they will shut for the next month in line with government advice.
Restaurants have been excluded from the list of businesses to shut as it was deemed to be too disruptive to daily lives, though they have been asked to operate with shortened hours. Izakaya pubs that open late, however, have been asked to close.
Mr Abe said that he was in good health but promised to self-isolate at the slightest sign of infection. He added that if he were to fall ill, there would be a "seamless shift" in leadership duties to his deputy Taro Aso.