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BARELY TWO weeks ago, the notion that Tokyo’s summer Olympic games should be postponed on account of the coronavirus pandemic was taboo among Japan’s ruling elites and the deferential national broadcaster, NHK. So, too, was any suggestion that covid-19 was not under control. But as soon as the prime minister, Abe Shinzo, admitted on March 24th that the games could not go ahead as planned, it was if a dam had burst. Growing alarm at the spread of the virus, notably in the capital, is now at the centre of the political discourse. For ordinary Japanese a turning-point came on March 29th, with the death from covid-19 of a comedian and beloved household name, Shimura Ken.
The alarm is appropriate. Japanese habits of hygiene and removing shoes inside, strong messaging about washing hands, and Mr Abe’s urging in February that schools temporarily close had appeared to be containing the virus. In comparison with Europe and America, Japan’s record is still impressive: just 2,419 confirmed infections and 66 deaths since the first case in January. But in just a few days, the daily number of new infections in Tokyo rose sharply, from 40-odd last week to 66 cases on April 1st.
The government’s policy has been to go after infection clusters and snuff them out. With the number of new cases accelerating, and transmission routes hard to divine, Japanese now worry that they could follow European and American trajectories after all. The government has been accused of concealing new cases to put on a good Olympic face. That seems implausible, but clinging on to the games was a distraction. And this week the government was still balking at the cost to business of stricter measures. Yet even Mr Abe has inferred that isolating clusters is not working. At his Saturday press conference, he admitted that in the event of an explosive rise in new cases “our strategy…will immediately collapse.” He offered no Plan B.
That has fallen to Tokyo’s governor, Koike Yuriko. Blunt and forceful, she warns that a lockdown of the world’s biggest megalopolis is coming. Her direct style has upstaged the prime minister. Her pleas to break the chain of infection have even shut Tokyo’s red-light districts, surely a first since America’s firebombing of the city in 1945. Yet her powers of persuasion have limits. Her call for Tokyoites to remain at home this past weekend was honoured more in the breach—until snow on the Sunday helped her cause.
Much more is needed. Government guidance is too vague. It urges “self-restraint”, with the implication that people face being shamed if they do not conform. It says people should avoid crowded places, or where there is poor ventilation, or where conversation takes place at close quarters. Yet it says nothing about commuter trains that flagrantly breach such conditions. Corporate priorities trump everything else, with barely a sixth of office staff working from home. In much of Japan, pachinko—pinball—parlours are still full. “Social distancing”, even as an imported phrase, does not exist.
Murakami Hiromi, a health policy expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, says a full lockdown for Tokyo and surrounding prefectures may now be needed. At last Mr Abe has put someone in charge of the coronavirus response: the minister for economic and fiscal policy, Nishimura Yasutoshi. Others want Mr Abe to go further and declare a national state of emergency. New legislation gives him the power to do so.
It is here that Japan’s old ideological faultlines are playing out over the coronavirus. Conservative allies say the prime minister is dealt a poor hand in comparison with other democracies’ leaders fighting the pandemic. The stigma of Japan’s wartime militarism has rendered state power weak, with Mr Abe able only to exhort, not command. Even the new emergency law delegates powers to prefectures and municipalities—and these may only “request” that citizens follow heavily freighted instructions, with no enforcement mechanisms.
Liberal critics worry that Mr Abe, whose government over the years has harassed the press and chipped away at constitutional constraints on its authority, could use an emergency to widen his powers alarmingly. That is always a risk, given a weak civil society in Japan and given that his Liberal Democratic Party wants a revised constitution. Mr Abe’s inner autocrat might yet be unleashed. But it is striking that so far this year he has shown a paucity of leadership, not an oppressive streak.
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This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “The drifters”