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Japan moves closer to declaring virus emergency in Tokyo, Osaka

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                                People wearing face masks stand at a crossing in Tokyo.


    People wearing face masks stand at a crossing in Tokyo.

Tokyo and Osaka will ask the Japanese government to declare a state of emergency, looking to ramp up restrictions to contain a surge in coronavirus cases just three months before the start of the delayed Olympics.

Infections are spreading in the capital and swift action is needed, with the medical system under strain in some areas, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told reporters. Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura said he’ll seek the declaration to stem record infections in the country’s second-biggest metropolis.

The calls by the leaders of Japan’s two-biggest and economically important urban areas add to the pressure on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to make the decision, which the Sankei newspaper said could come as soon as this week. It could also include Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures, which border Osaka, local media reports said.

Tokyo is looking to have a state of emergency in place from April 29 through May 9, to coincide with a string of public holidays known as “Golden Week,” the Mainichi newspaper reported Wednesday, citing an unnamed political official. The move could step up current virus restrictions by having department stores close, it said. The Yomiuri newspaper reported that entertainment facilities including karaoke parlors could also face temporary closure.

Covid-19 cases in the capital have jumped in recent days, with the daily total hitting 843 on Wednesday. It’s the highest since late January, when Tokyo was under its second state of emergency.

“We need to take action as soon as possible,” Koike said. The city is expected to make its final decision after a virus panel meeting on Thursday. In previous situations, the Japanese government then signals it backs the move and Suga announces a formal decision on Friday, laying out the terms and duration of the declaration.

While Suga had pledged efforts to avoid reintroducing a state of emergency, surveys show public support to implement the measure. But tighter restrictions on activity could delay the economy’s recovery, deal a heavy blow to struggling businesses and further test the resolve of policy makers and Olympic organizers to press ahead with the Summer Games, set to start in July after a one-year delay.

The surge comes as Japan has only started vaccinating its general public this month, with shots for those over 65. It has administered 2 million doses to its 126 million-strong population and the government’s vaccine czar, Taro Kono, said the country is looking to finish its program by February 2022.

Suga’s government already tightened some restrictions earlier restrictions this month in Tokyo, Osaka and other regions to slow the spread, imposing measures that call on bars and restaurants to close by 8 p.m., and those that fail to comply face fines.

Under the current measures, commuter trains are packed, while crowds flock to stores and restaurants. Civil liberties enshrined in Japan’s constitution prohibit a lockdown backed by police action.

Suga, who has touted the Olympics, scheduled to start July 23, as an opportunity to prove the world has defeated the virus, reiterated the government’s stance that the Games will proceed as scheduled despite any state of emergency.

“There will be no impact on the Olympics,” he told reporters. “The government will do its best to host the Games in safety.” The mounting virus cases have prompted Suga to cancel visits to India and the Philippines planned from late April to early May, Kyodo News reported, citing unnamed government sources.

There is no law that prohibits the Olympics from taking place under an emergency, but it will likely impact the number of domestic spectators allowed. Overseas fans are already banned from the event.

The virus surge has further soured Japanese public support for the Olympics, which would be one of the biggest global events of the pandemic era. More than 70% of those surveyed by broadcaster ANN over the weekend said they were against holding the Games, which were expected to draw more than 60,000 athletes, coaches, national team staff, media and other essential workers from more than 200 countries, as scheduled.

Despite the rising numbers in Japan, the country has by far the fewest recorded Covid-19 cases of any Group of Seven country. Its death toll has also been among the lowest in the group at about 9,650, well below the some 128,000 in the U.K., which has a population about the half the size of Japan’s.

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