TOKYO - Japan appears to be out of the woods from a Covid-19 wave because of the contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus, allowing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to end an ongoing state of emergency as planned at midnight on Thursday (Sept 30) in one of his last acts in office.
Mr Suga's successor will be chosen on Wednesday by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in an internal party election with four candidates vying for the post. A tight race is expected between vaccination minister Taro Kono and former foreign minister Fumio Kishida.
The Diet will convene next Monday to confirm the new PM, which will be a formality since the LDP's coalition has a majority in both houses of Parliament.
There were 1,723 cases nationwide on Tuesday - down from the peak of 25,868 infections on Aug 20. Tokyo, which is about three times larger than Singapore in size and population, had just 248 cases, down from a high of 5,773 on Aug 13.
Singapore's Covid-19 battle has rarely made headlines in Japan until recently, with domestic media citing the ongoing Delta-linked surge as a cautionary tale against letting the guard down even as vaccinations take off.
Mr Suga, likewise, on Tuesday urged vigilance given that the looming winter months may trigger a sixth wave with indoor heating causing poorer ventilation and as millions are expected to criss-cross the country for homecoming visits.
His year-long tenure as Prime Minister has been marred by plenty of criticism over seemingly never-ending Covid-19 curbs - Friday will only be the 29th day this year that Tokyo is not under an emergency or quasi-emergency - and his inability to communicate with the public.
But he leaves behind a country that is a lot more confident in coping with future waves of Covid-19.
"I know that there were many people who were critical about me, but we can say that these treatments and vaccines are effective, and we do truly see a light at the end of the tunnel," Mr Suga told a news conference on Tuesday.
"From now on we must assume that we will live with the virus, and make our society more resilient so as to balance daily activities and anti-virus measures."
Among other things, Mr Suga stressed that a framework is now in place to ensure that hospital beds can be secured more quickly in case of future Covid-19 waves.
He noted how up to 130,000 people have had to recuperate at home in the fifth wave, while he had taken flak for a controversial policy to hospitalise only the sickest Covid-19 patients. Many, however, died at home after their condition worsened.
Further, despite being slow off the blocks in its vaccination programme, Japan has not only already fully immunised 58 per cent of its population but is on track to double-dose all those who are keen by November.
Mr Suga said that the country has already secured 200 million doses of vaccines for booster shots - which will be more than necessary for its entire population - and will progressively start administering them by year-end.
Meanwhile, Japan has been beefing up its arsenal of Covid-19 treatments with a fifth drug, sotrovimab by Britain's GlaxoSmithKline and the US' Vir Biotechnology, approved on Monday.
On the same day, pharmacies were also allowed to begin sales of self-test antigen rapid test kits that Mr Suga hoped would quell worries of infection.
"The fight will now enter a new phase. Vaccine roll-out is accelerating. The risk of infection was high but we were able to contain this, while neutralising antibody treatments have helped to reduce the number of severe cases," Mr Suga said.
All this has given rise to an optimism that might finally be warranted among a public that has been quick to pass judgment on Mr Suga's missteps, and slow to give him credit for the successful Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.
Much of Japan has been under a Covid-19 emergency for the most part of the year. Dr Shigeru Omi, who leads the government panel of experts, said that among other things, the "shock factor" of constant bad news including the soaring Covid-19 infection figures could have led to people exercising more awareness, resulting in the steep plunge in cases.
What will change from Friday?
Japan's Covid-19 state of emergency or the looser quasi-emergency that is ongoing in 27 prefectures will end as scheduled on Thursday. But Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said restrictions will only be "gradually eased" to prevent a rebound of a sixth Covid-19 wave, with measures subject to another review next month.
Food and beverage establishments under emergency areas were requested to observe an all-day alcohol ban and an 8pm curfew on dine-in service. Many ignored these restrictions despite the risk of a fine of up to 300,000 yen (S$3,655).
From Friday, restaurants and bars whose Covid-19 countermeasures have been certified by prefecture authorities may serve alcohol until 8pm and open for dine-in service until 9pm.
From Friday, event capacity will be capped to either half the size of a venue or 10,000 people, whichever is lower. This has been eased from the maximum 5,000 people under the state of emergency. Events that do not involve loud cheering may proceed at full capacity.
Leisure travel is still barred, but from Friday, vaccinated residents or other visa holders will have their quarantine cut from 14 days to 10 days. Japan recognises only its approved vaccines, currently Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.