Women wearing yukatas, a traditional Japanese summer outfit, visit the Sensoji Buddhist temple on August 12, 2021 in Tokyo's Asakusa district. Image Credit: AFP

Tokyo: As Japan struggles with its worst-yet wave of coronavirus cases, calls for the kind of mandatory lockdown seen in other parts of the world have emerged in a country that has so far shunned such harsh measures.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike warned on Friday the situation in the capital was at disaster level as cases jumped to a record of 5,773, more than quadrupling in just three weeks. Earlier, virus experts called the situation “out of control” in analysis presented to the metropolitan government. Regional governors and a senior member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have called on the central government to consider clamping down harder.

Those calls have so far been rejected by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who faces a general election in the next three months, with his support at record lows. It is unclear how voters would react to a lockdown, given the existing blow to businesses from the spread of the delta variant and the light-touch restrictions currently in place.

While some countries were quick to restrict individual freedoms in the pursuit of reining in COVID-19 last year, Japan has relied on asking people to refrain from going out unnecessarily. There are no penalties for disobedience, and no enforcement. That soft approach, reflecting a deep-seated aversion to the authoritarianism seen before and during World War II, was until recently fairly effective.

The death toll in Japan is about 15,000, compared with 130,000 in the UK, which has half Japan’s population. About a million infections have been recorded, compared with more than six million in the UK. As the world searched for the keys to COVID-19 success last year, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso even talked of bragging to foreign leaders about Japan being on a different “cultural level” because it was controlling the virus without lockdowns.

Now that the spread of the Delta variant has brought hospitalizations and serious cases in Japan to new peaks - though daily death tolls remain low following widespread vaccination of the elderly - lockdowns have re-entered the policy debate.

“States of emergency are gradually beginning to lose their effectiveness,” LDP policy chief Hakubun Shimomura told a BS Fuji TV programme August 4. “I think we should talk about stay-home orders.” Top government virus adviser Shigeru Omi also said it’s a “matter of course” to discuss stricter measures if current efforts don’t work.

Japan has imposed a series of states of emergency since spring 2020, which bolster the powers of regional governors to place restrictions on businesses, but not on individuals. The main policy priority in recent months has been to ban bars and restaurants from serving alcohol and to make them close by 8pm. Even those limited restrictions are increasingly being ignored by businesses desperate for revenue, despite the threat of fines, leaving the government seeking new ideas.

Japan’s US-imposed constitution has been cited as an impediment to compulsory restrictions, because Article 22 of the document guarantees the right to freedom of movement. However, since the document also holds the state responsible for the promotion of public health, the issue is open to interpretation.

Tokyo situation is out of control, panel expert Says

“It’s possible to have a lockdown under Japan’s constitution,” said Koju Nagai, a Kobe-based lawyer and campaigner for disaster victims, who added that such a drastic measure would require the passage of a new law, and should be kept as a last resort. “If there’s any other way of handling it, we should do that first.”

Suga told reporters July 30 that the effectiveness of lockdowns was debatable, with cases bouncing back after they were lifted, adding that such measures would not be accepted in Japan. “In the end, it’s about vaccines,” he said. While immunizations are now progressing fairly rapidly, only about 37% of Japan’s population is fully vaccinated, compared with more than half in the US. A focus on the elderly has brought the proportion of those 65 and over who are fully vaccinated to 83%, slightly more than the US.

For the moment, the government is sticking to the types of measures it’s tried in the past - pressing for entry restrictions at large commercial facilities such as shopping malls in Tokyo and surrounding regions, and stepping up its calls on the public to avoid going out. At the same time, the government’s advisory panel said Thursday it would soon unveil a plan for easing restrictions on social and economic activity. The panel has been studying what will be possible if vaccines reach 70% of the population, the Asahi newspaper said Friday.

Suga has also introduced stricter limits on which patients can be hospitalized, leaving many to recuperate at home to reduce the strain on medical facilities.

“If you have to go out, please reduce the frequency of your outings by 50%,” virus adviser Omi said Thursday, according to NHK. “If we go on like this, more people will die at home.”