TOKYO - The owner of a Tokyo eatery that featured in a Hollywood box-office smash and has hosted world leaders is suing the metropolitan authorities over an order to shorten business hours because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Kozo Hasegawa, who runs the Global-Dining group of restaurants that includes the famous Gonpachi chain, has argued that the gravity of the measures imposed far outweighed the severity of the pandemic and that the order was "illegal and unconstitutional as it infringes on the right to freedom of business".
"I don't want to survive doing harm to the people of Tokyo, but I truly believe that the virus is not dangerous for everyone except for high-risk groups like the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions," Mr Hasegawa told a news conference on Tuesday (March 30).
"By ordering eateries to close, instead of taking focused measures to protect the vulnerable, it's like chopping off your arm from the shoulder to treat an infection at the tip of your finger," he argued.
Mr Hasegawa added that his own diabetic brother, who died suddenly last year, had subsequently tested positive for Covid-19.
The restaurant owner said he filed the lawsuit on principle rather than for financial redress. He is asking for a nominal 104 yen (S$1.30) in damages.
The Gonpachi outlet in the glitzy Roppongi district was the backdrop of a scene in Quentin Tarantino's 2003 film Kill Bill. In 2002, it served as the venue for a dinner summit between then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and then United States President George W. Bush.
This is the first such lawsuit to be filed in Japan, which in February revised its laws to punish food and beverage businesses that refuse to follow curfew orders with fines of up to 300,000 yen.
Up until then, without a legal mechanism, Japan could use only a soft-touch approach in making non-binding requests for businesses to shorten hours.
Tokyo was under a state of emergency from Jan 8 to March 21 as it grappled with a third wave of cases, though, unlike another declaration last year, the city was not brought to a standstill and streets remained crowded with shops open and events being held.
While most F&B eateries in Tokyo complied with the restrictions, Global-Dining ignored the 8pm curfew for much of the state of emergency this year until the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) ordered it to do so, threatening legal action otherwise.
Despite the emergency being lifted, the TMG has made a non-binding request to F&B outlets to close by 9pm until April 21 to try to curb infections with the city already on the brink of a fourth Covid-19 wave.
But Global-Dining has resumed normal hours at its Gonpachi outlets, including the one at Roppongi, which now stays open until 3.30am.
Mr Hasegawa argued that companies should not be made a scapegoat in the pandemic fight, suggesting that "maybe the government isn't doing their job right".
He added that it was "hypocritical" that 23 Health Ministry bureaucrats could party at a Ginza pub until midnight on March 24, in a scandal that has led to an apology by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
Tokyo logged 446 cases on Saturday (April 3), with the seven-day average up 12 per cent from a week ago.
Osaka, which exited the state of emergency on Feb 28 and will have "pre-emergency" measures kick in on Monday with Hyogo and Miyagi, on Saturday rewrote its all-time daily high with 666 new cases.
Government officials and medical experts have observed that Tokyo may be behind Osaka on the epidemiological curve by three weeks.