Yoshihide Suga
Yoshihide Suga, Japan's prime minister, speaks during a news conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

Tokyo: Japan's government declared a month-long coronavirus state of emergency in the greater Tokyo area on Thursday as the capital reported a record surge in daily infections.

"The nationwide, rapid spread of the new coronavirus is feared to have a great impact on people's lives and the economy," said Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga as he announced the new restrictions, which begin on Friday.

The measure is far less strict than the harsh lockdowns seen in other parts of the world, and softer than the country's first state of emergency last spring.

It primarily targets restaurants and bars, which will be asked to stop serving alcohol by 7pm and close an hour later, with residents requested to avoid non-essential outings from 8pm.

In Tokyo and three surrounding areas that petitioned the government to make the move, businesses will also be urged to maximise teleworking with the goal of reducing commuter traffic by 70 per cent.

The minister in charge of Japan's pandemic response earlier warned that Tokyo's medical system was now "stretched thin".

"Every day we are seeing record numbers of infections. We have a very serious sense of crisis," Yasutoshi Nishimura said.

Tokyo recorded 2,447 new cases on Thursday - shattering the previous record of 1,591 logged a day earlier.

Still, Japan's outbreak remains comparatively small, with just over 3,700 deaths since the country's first infection was detected in January 2020.

The government had been reluctant to call a state of emergency for fear of sending the economy into reverse shortly after it emerged from recession. Greater Tokyo accounts for a third of Japan's GDP.

"A contraction of GDP in Q1 is inevitable" with the new measure, Masamichi Adachi, Japan chief economist at UBS Securities told AFP.

"Balancing economic and public health concerns is difficult... it's a very difficult situation to manage for any leader."

Six-month Olympic countdown

Suga's approval ratings have nosedived over his handling of the latest wave of infections - particularly his government's controversial backing of a domestic travel campaign despite spiking case numbers.

He has said this emergency will be more limited and focused than last year's, despite warnings from medical experts that it may be insufficient.

Schools will not close and major events will be permitted, with the cap for spectators revised down to 5,000 people or 50 per cent capacity, whichever is smaller.

Japanese law does not currently allow authorities to enforce cooperation with the requests, though the government is planning legislation permitting fines for businesses that do not comply.

For now, subsidies will be offered to businesses that close early, and the government could name-and-shame those that fail to do so.

The measure comes just over six months before the virus-postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics are due to open, and Suga this week insisted he was still committed to holding the Games as "proof of mankind's victory over the virus".

But the emergency is likely to harden public opinion, with a majority opposed to holding the Games this year even before the third wave worsened.

Tokyo 2020 organisers said Thursday they would delay a planned display of the Olympic and Paralympic torches in the capital. They were due to be exhibited before the countrywide torch relay starts on March 25.

Japan has yet to approve a coronavirus vaccine, with Suga saying this week he hoped the first jabs could begin in late February.

What does a new state of emergency mean for Japan?

A large screen on a building shows live broadcast of Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declaring a state of emergency for Tokyo and three neighbouring prefectures, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Tokyo, Japan January 7, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

Which areas are affected?

The month-long declaration is not nationwide. It affects four neighbouring areas that account for much of the rise in Japan's caseload: Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama.

The region, known as greater Tokyo, is home to more than 36 million people and accounts for a third of Japan's GDP.

Other parts of the country are not affected for now, although one other region has said it could seek to be included if cases there continue to rise.

What does the measure allow?

A state of emergency empowers governors in affected regions to call for restrictions on movement and commerce but offers little in the way of enforcement.

Governors can request people stay inside and call for businesses that attract large numbers of people, like entertainment venues or department stores, to close their doors.

But there are no punishments for those who defy the request, nor any other enforcement mechanisms.

Japan's government is seeking to introduce legislation this month to allow fines for businesses that defy closure requests, and provide incentives for those who comply.

So what will change?

This time restaurants and bars will be asked to stop serving alcohol by 7pm and close an hour later, except for take-out and delivery.

Other businesses - from gyms to theme parks - are also likely to be asked to shorten hours, and telework will be encouraged with the goal of reducing commuter traffic by 70 percent.

Residents will be asked to avoid non-essential outings, especially in the evening.

The strongest power accorded to governors is the ability to commandeer buildings or land for medical purposes, for example requiring landowners to turn over property to build temporary medical facilities.

Local education boards can also close schools but officials say there are no plans to do so for now.

And reports suggest the cap on spectators at major events will be revised down to 5,000 people or 50 percent capacity, whichever number is smaller.

The restrictions are more lax than Japan's last state of emergency, which saw many businesses closing altogether and shuttered schools.

How will the public react?

Despite the lack of enforcement, last year's state of emergency was widely respected.

Suga's government has seen approval ratings slump over its handling of the third wave of infections, with criticism of its decision to continue promoting a domestic travel campaign even as case numbers rose.

Polls from December on the prospect of a nationwide state of emergency showed a majority supporting the move.

What does it mean for the Olympics?

Japan's government and Tokyo 2020 organisers have steadfastly stuck to the line that the virus-postponed Games will open this summer, and Suga reiterated this week his determination to hold the event as "proof of mankind's victory over the virus".

Still, a majority of the public, even before the emergency, opposed holding the Games this year, favouring further postponement or outright cancellation.

The recent retightening of border restrictions could theoretically affect visits by Olympic officials, but athletes are not due to begin arriving for months.

However, some health officials have warned the emergency would need to last around two months to have an effect on infection rates - edging close to the new March 25 start date for the Olympic torch relay.