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Japan To Declare A COVID-19 State Of Emergency But Not A Lockdown


Japan declared a state of emergency today in and around its two biggest cities. Now, the Japanese government says this is not a lockdown and that the country will still function. At the moment, Japan only has about 4,000 cases of COVID-19, but that number is going up. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been following all of this from Seoul in South Korea. Hey, Anthony.


KING: So what powers does the government have now that it's declared a state of emergency?

KUHN: Well, the emergency will cover the capital, Tokyo, and the second city, Osaka, and five prefectures that surround it - surround them. And it will go into effect tonight and last for about a month. And the main thing is that it gives these prefectural governments the power to request residents to stay home and request businesses to stay shut. But the law on infectious diseases does not specify any penalties if they don't. It gives them a few extra powers, like they can take control of private land and buildings for temporary medical facilities. But the main thing is that, you know, Tokyo and other prefectures have not waited for this. They've already made the request to citizens to stay at home, and the citizens have mostly complied. So you could argue that although the government isn't getting many extra powers from this emergency, they may not need them anyway.

KING: OK. But you said something interesting there. You said this is a request. Does that mean there's no - does that mean this is essentially symbolic?

KUHN: Well, yeah. I mean, the police can't punish you for not complying, so it is sort of symbolic. But people may take it more seriously. Governors can now act with more legal authority. But as an expert said to me, ordinary citizens may be more concerned with getting more test kits and hospital beds and less about legal authority.

KING: Sure. That makes sense. Four thousand cases all told is not ideal, but it also isn't a lot. How is the virus spreading in Japan?

KUHN: Well, people had thought at first that Japan was somehow going to dodge the bullet, that it was going to have less cases than its neighbors. But this seems to put that to rest. People have argued for a long time that they're not testing enough. And now experts who advise the government say that some cities' hospitals are at capacity and may soon be overwhelmed. So the time for declaring this emergency was really more like two weeks ago. In a way, though, it's not that odd because even countries like South Korea, which is - which have tested for the virus very aggressively, have still been overwhelmed in places. And so they've had to switch strategies from testing and isolating infected patients to mitigating the impact of the virus and then beefing up hospitals and doing social distancing.

KING: One big question that this has raised, all of these emergency declarations in a lot of countries, is the question of the government versus individual rights. And I wonder when you speak to Japanese people, do you get the sense that they're comfortable with giving the government more power at the expense of them as individuals?

KUHN: Well, clearly, their main concern right now is that the government - they want the government to take strong action to protect them from the virus. At the same time, they're very much aware of Japan's history, and in the runup to World War II, militarists made use of these emergency powers to drag the country into World War II. And Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, has long argued that Japan's constitution should give the government more powers and individual liberty should be curbed. And in fact, Abe did say in Parliament today that lawmakers should consider revising the constitution in order to give the government more powers and perhaps curtail individual rights.

KING: Oh, that's really interesting. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul, South Korea. Anthony, thanks so much.

KUHN: You're welcome, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.