Japan’s April 7 Emergency Declaration: A Behind-the Scenes Look

Politics

Prime Minister Claims Responsibility

Following his April 7 press conference officially announcing a state of emergency in seven prefectures, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō provided written comments to several media outlets that did not have an opportunity to ask him questions that evening. “I am the one who bears responsibility for political decisions,” stated one of these comments. “And my aim is to do what is necessary to avoid a worst-case scenario that threatens people’s lives.”

Faced with the spread of COVID-19, Prime Minister Abe has had to make a string of political decisions related to people’s lives. These have included dispatching five charter planes to return Japanese citizens from Hubei Province in China, responding to the situation aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, requesting the cancellation of events and school holidays, implementing measures to limit or prevent entry to Japan, and expanding the scope of voluntary nationwide shutdowns for such businesses as bars and nightclubs.

One of the most important political decisions the prime minister has made thus far was to declare a state of emergency on April 7. This article takes a behind-the-scenes look at this decision to highlight the background and timing of the declaration.

Emergency Declaration as a Last Resort

Prime Minister Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide at an April 7 meeting of a government task force to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.
Prime Minister Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide at an April 7 meeting of a government task force to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.

After the amendment of a special measures law on March 13 to include COVID-19 within its provisions, including those that give the government more power to declare a state of emergency and place restrictions on public activities, popular attention was focused on the timing of the declaration of the emergency that would impact their lives. The high level of public interest was reflected in the online rumor that spread in late March that the declaration would be made on April 1, with a lockdown of cities to be implemented on the following day—leading Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide to take the unusual step of issuing an unequivocal public denial.

The emergency was eventually declared on April 7, covering seven prefectures, including Tokyo and Osaka. At the press conference that day, Prime Minister Abe explained the reason for the declaration: “Considering the increasing pressure placed on healthcare systems in some areas of the country, we concluded that there is no time to spare with regard to declaring an emergency. We determined that the situation presents the risk of exerting a significant impact on people’s lives and the national economy.”

Aiming to Avoid Panic

Toilet paper sold out at a store in March
Toilet paper sold out at a store in March

In fact, though, various intertwined elements formed the backdrop to prime minister’s decision. One government official listed three factors behind the declaration on April 7.

The first factor was the influence of the comments being made by Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko regarding a possible “lockdown” of the capital—with far more severe restrictions than a declared emergency, which involves governmental requests for people to curtail their daily activities. The term began to be used by members of the government’s expert panel to counter the COVID-19 pandemic, and Governor Koike, in turn, began to frequently employ it herself. On March 25, when the number of newly infected persons in Tokyo shot up by 41 in a single day, she described the situation as being in a “critical phase” and noted that a “lockdown would be necessary if the current trend continued.”

The government, which had been consulting with experts to decide on the best timing for declaring an emergency, was taken aback by the growing impression among the general public, under the influence of Governor Koike’s comments, that an emergency declaration would be equivalent to a lockdown.

This idea that a state of emergency would constitute a “lockdown” is mistaken, as it is not possible under Japanese law to shut down cities as dramatically as other countries have done. The spread of this idea raised concerns within the government that a declaration could trigger panic, such as people hoarding food or fleeing cities for rural areas ill-equipped to handle an influx of potentially infected visitors. Government officials apparently sought some way to quell the mistaken impression and calm down the situation.

The Effects of Social Distancing

The second factor with regard to the timing was related to the calculations of a research team led by Professor Nishiura Hiroshi of Hokkaidō University, which announced on April 3 that reducing person-to-person contact by 80% would lower the number of infected persons. The very next day the number of new infections in Tokyo surpassed 100 for the first time. The calculations, which also suggest that infections would continue to rise unless the 80% level was reached, raised awareness in government circles of the need to declare an emergency.

On April 4, Prime Minister Abe met with senior government figures including Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga, Health Minister Katō Katsunobu, and Economic Revival Minister Nishimura Yasutoshi, whose portfolio encompasses the implementation of the special measures law. The atmosphere at the meeting, which lasted over an hour, is described by one government official as follows:

“An intense debate ensued. Nishimura argued that a declaration had to be made, in light of the Hokkaidō University calculations and new infections in Tokyo surpassing the daily level of 100. Katō countered this argument by pointing to the need to consider the impact on the economy and to make more preparations. In the end the decision came down to the prime minister, who said that a declaration would have to be made in the coming days.”

At his April 7 press conference, Prime Minister Abe emphasized the importance of reducing person-to-person contact under the state of emergency, noting that “if personal contact could be reduced by at least 70 percent or as much as 80 percent, it would be possible to curb the increase in infections within around two weeks and then gradually lower the curve.”

Preparations to Prevent Panic

The third factor concerned the sense of speed and the preparation time for the declaration. On April 6, the day prior to the official announcement, Prime Minister Abe announced that he was “entering preparations” to make a declaration. This was done, the government official explains, because if the declaration had been made on April 7 without any forewarning, it could have triggered a panic. In addition, “it was necessary for local governments and the business world to make preparations.”

The official also noted: “Initially, the declaration was to be made on April 8 or 9, since time was needed to coordinate with the Diet and local governments. But it seems that the prime minister was eager to make the declaration, so the timing was sped up by one day. The rift between the Tokyo prefectural authorities and the central government with regard to the selection of business sectors subject to the request to suspend operations, as well the inadequacy of preparations, came to light, but the prime minister still wanted to go ahead with the emergency.”

Once the decision was made to issue a declaration, the question became how to do so as promptly as possible while securing enough time to make needed preparations. After pondering those matters, the key political decision was made to announce preparations for this first emergency declaration on April 6 and to issue it the following day.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on April 14, 2020. Written by Fuji TV Political Correspondent Chida Jun’ichi. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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