Packed trains, drinking: Japanese impatient over virus steps

·4 min read

TOKYO — Trains packed with commuters returning to work after a weeklong national holiday. Frustrated young people drinking in the streets because bars are closed. Protests planned over a possible visit by the Olympics chief.

As the coronavirus spreads in Japan ahead of the Tokyo Olympics starting in 11 weeks, one of the world’s least vaccinated nations is showing signs of strain, both societal and political.

The government — desperate to show a worried public it is in control of virus efforts even as it pushes a massive sporting event that a growing number of Japanese oppose hosting in a pandemic — is set Friday to expand and extend a state of emergency in Tokyo and other areas through May 31.

For Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the emergency declaration is both a health measure and a political tightrope walk as domestic criticism rises of Japan's seeming determination to hold the Olympics, at any cost.

Japan has avoided implementing a hard lockdown to curb infections, and past states of emergency have had little teeth, with people and businesses free to ignore the provisions. These measures have since been toughened, but they come as citizens show increased impatience and less desire to co-operate , making it possible that the emergency declaration will be less effective.

The current state of emergency in Tokyo and Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures in the west is scheduled to end Tuesday. Officials want to extend it in those areas and to expand to Aichi in central Japan and Fukuoka in the south.

Officials in charge of Japan's COVID-19 response are seeking experts' endorsement of the plan, and Suga will announce the measures later Friday.

On Friday, two days after “Golden Week” holiday makers returned to their daily routine — Tokyo logged 907 new cases of coronavirus infection, up sharply from 635 when the state of emergency began in the capital last month, but far above a target of 100 that some experts recommend.

Officials and experts say significantly fewer people may have tested for the virus during the holiday, when many testing centres and hospitals were closed, and caution the numbers during and right after the holiday period may not reflect the reality.

During the holidays, significantly more people than last year were seen at tourist spots in Kyoto and Nara despite stay-home requests. With drinking places closed, younger people carrying canned beer and snacks gathered at parks and streets in downtown Tokyo. When the holiday ended, many defied requests for remote work and returned to their offices on packed trains.

The extension deepens uncertainty over a speculated May 17 visit by International Olympics Committee President Thomas Bach, and if Japan can safely host the Summer Olympics postponed from last year and scheduled to be held July 23-Aug. 8.

Despite criticism for being slow to take virus measures, Suga has been reluctant to hurt the already pandemic-damaged economy and pledged to keep the state of emergency “short and intensive," though experts said just over two weeks would be too short to effectively slow the infections.

The ongoing emergency is Japan’s third and came only a month after an earlier measure ended in the Tokyo area.

Less stringent, quasi-emergency measures will be expanded to eight prefectures from the current six where bars and restaurants are required to close early.

Japan has about 616,000 cases including about 10,500 deaths since the pandemic began.

Medical systems in hardest-hit Osaka have been under severe pressure from a COVID-19 outbreak there that is hampering ordinary health care, experts say. A number of patients died at home recently after their conditions worsened while waiting for vacancy at hospitals.

Past emergency measures authorized only non-mandatory requests. The government in February toughened a law on anti-virus measures to allow authorities to issue binding orders for nonessential businesses to shorten their hours or close, in exchange for compensation for those who comply and penalties for violators.

Shutdown requirements for bars, karaoke and most entertainment facilities will stay in place until the end of May, but department stores will be allowed to operate for shorter hours.

Wearing masks, staying home and other measures for the general public remain non-mandatory request.

The government has also been criticized over its snail-paced vaccination rollout, which has covered only 2% of the population since inoculations began in mid-February.

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AP writer Foster Klug contributed to this report.

Mari Yamaguchi, The Associated Press

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