TOKYO - Tokyo will once again come under Covid-19 restrictions from next Monday (April 12) - just three weeks after a state of emergency ended in the capital - as experts warn that a fourth wave of infections to hit Japan may be the largest and deadliest yet.
The measures come as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga eyes the Olympics, which are set to flag off in about 100 days, as well as a general election, which is due in six months. His approval ratings are flagging with the rise in Covid cases.
Mr Suga said the so-called "quasi-emergency" restrictions are needed in parts of Tokyo, Kyoto and Okinawa to ease the strain on hospitals amid the spike in cases.
They join the western prefectures of Osaka and Hyogo, and north-east Miyagi, where similar measures kicked in on Monday.
The "quasi-emergency", passed under a new law in February, rehashes steps taken in an emergency but allows them to be targeted at specific municipalities instead of entire prefectures.
But the Prime Minister appears to have little left in his toolbox to curb the spread of Covid-19 as more infectious mutant strains of the coronavirus - in particular, the British N501Y strain - become mainstream.
A Japanese study this week found the strain to be 32 per cent more contagious than the original. The number of Covid-19 variant cases jumped 14-fold in March, from February.
On Friday, Mr Suga again exhorted: "Variant strains call for the same anti-infection measures. Wear masks, wash hands, avoid closed and crowded places, and avoid all non-urgent travel."
The problem, however, is that these trite reminders, drilled into a generally-conscientious Japanese public, have done little to stop Covid-19 from spreading.
And the public is not just losing patience, but growing weary and sceptical. A telework push has seen limited success, and trains are still packed like sardines in the morning rush. Foot traffic in entertainment districts remains high.
Even politicians and bureaucrats are repeatedly running afoul of the very advisories they come up with. While asking the public to avoid dining out in large groups late at night, 23 Health Ministry officials were caught partying until midnight in Ginza last month. Three have tested positive for Covid-19.
Japan has no legal framework to impose strict lockdowns, and hence its "restrictions" are a lot looser than abroad.
No business is being mandated to close. Food and beverage outlets can offer dine-in service until 8pm, or face potential fines of up to 200,000 yen (S$2,450).
Events can still accommodate up to 5,000 people or half a venue capacity, whichever is lower.
The measures are slated to expire in Osaka, Hyogo, Miyagi, Kyoto and Okinawa on May 5, and in Tokyo on May 11. This covers the "Golden Week" stretch of holidays that is usually a bumper tourism season.
Osaka, which set a record high of 905 cases on Thursday, reported another 883 on Friday. Fears are mounting that Tokyo, with 534 cases, on Friday - the third straight day of over 500 cases - is set to follow suit.
The situation may still yet worsen given the government's inconsistent benchmarks, as a Japan Times report pointed out on Friday.
Osaka's neighbouring prefecture of Nara not only set another daily record for the fifth straight day, with 96 cases on Friday, but it also now has the third-highest number of new cases per 100,000 people, just below Osaka and Okinawa.
Its hospital occupancy rate was at an alarming 63 per cent, but the "quasi-emergency" was deemed unnecessary as the cases were "due to an inflow of people from Osaka".