Steps toward a declaration
On Monday, Abe met with the minister in charge of coronavirus measures, Nishimura Yasutoshi, and the chairman of the government advisory committee, Omi Shigeru, to discuss how to deal with the current situation.
Sources tell NHK that Abe will propose an emergency declaration for the prefectures of Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Osaka, Hyogo, and Fukuoka. The measure would last for about a month.
Under Japanese law, the Prime Minister can only declare a state of emergency when two conditions are met.
First: a situation presenting a grave threat to lives and health.
Second: a situation that could cause serious economic damage, harming the livelihoods of the public.
The Prime Minister has authority on which prefectures and over what period of time the declaration will cover.
The governors of the designated areas will ask residents to stay at home except for what are deemed “essential activities.”
The governors will also be able to request the closures of schools and other facilities capable of hosting large-scale gatherings.
Unlike in countries such as the UK and France, the government cannot punish those who do not comply with the order. And governors cannot order shops to close, force workers to stay home, or suspend public transportation.
However, they will be able to use land and buildings without owner consent to set up temporary medical facilities, if hospitals reach capacity. They can also seize food and medical supplies if necessary.
What will happen in Tokyo?
Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko outlined on Friday the steps the city government will take if the Prime Minister declares a state of emergency.
Koike said she will ask residents to stay at home and request public facilities to close. She added that specific requests would be decided after the central government issues relevant guidelines.
Koike also said stores selling food, medicine and other daily necessities would remain open, along with banks, the stock exchange and other providers of essential social and economic services.
Koike added that the Metropolitan Government will set up a call center to respond to inquiries and address the concerns of residents and business owners.
Abe had previously said the country was not yet in a situation warranting a state of emergency declaration. He said government deliberations on the matter were made based on a range of factors, such as daily infections and expected economic damage.
However, over the past week two people asked him to reach a decision.
First, Koike met with Abe on Tuesday and urged him to make a decision as soon as possible. And then on Wednesday, Japan Medical Association President Yokokura Yoshitake warned that the situation at hospitals treating coronavirus patients could already be described as a crisis. He said there is a shortage of supplies and that beds are running low. He urged the government to respond before it is too late.
The governors of some prefectures, including Tokyo and Osaka, have already called on residents to refrain from non-essential, non-urgent excursions. For these areas, an emergency declaration would change very little, as it would not be legally binding.
The government would have to pass new laws to force people to stay at home. But while there is no legal force behind the lockdown, experts say they believe most people will adhere to the order.
As of Sunday, Japan had more than 3,800 cases of the coronavirus, excluding 712 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. 105 people have died, including 11 from the ship.