With a national daily increase in the number of new COVID-19 infections hitting a record high of 200 on April 7, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo declared a state of emergency for Tokyo, its neighboring prefectures and also Osaka, Hyogo, and Fukuoka Prefectures. While this announcement  — and the day-long debates in the Diet and extensive press questioning —brought some moments of clarity, so much remains unclear about what constitutes a state of emergency.

The legal restriction on the Japanese state’s ability to enforce compliance — the legacy of postwar laws meant to undermine revitalization of authoritarianism — means that many directives are nothing more than strong requests. The government may lack effective sticks, but it also is not offering any carrots in a straightforward or timely fashion that would help people and small businesses to facilitate the social distancing necessary. While the emergency response in Japan includes a record-breaking 108 trillion yen emergency stimulus package, it looks like the cash allowances promised under this package to low-income households and those facing income cuts due to a lack of work or reduction in hours won’t reach these populations until late May or even later.

Also, the bureaucratic demands created by Abe’s declaration may create more conditions that undermine directives to stay indoors. Potential recipients for the afore-mentioned benefits, an estimated 13 million households, will need to file applications with municipal governments and this may require face-to-face contact with local officials, even crowding. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of people required to go into work merely to apply their official seal (hanko) to approve the paperwork needed to respond to this emergency. Although we have voluntarily kept my child home from public daycare for many weeks, now that the daycare will close except for families with parents in exceptional circumstances, they required me to come in just to fill out paperwork.

Traffic at the East Exit of Shinjuku Station is markedly lighter after PM Abe declared a State of Emergency for Tokyo on April 9, 2020. (Photo: Nathaniel Smith, 9 April 2020)

– April 8, 2020

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Chelsea Szendi Schieder is a historian of contemporary Japan and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Economics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan. Her book, Co-Ed Revolution: The Female Student in the Japanese New Left, is forthcoming on Duke University Press.


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The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science(Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.

Tokyo Notes [6] :: Chelsea Szendi Schieder (Japan)