Prime minister Shinzo Abe has declared victory for the “Japan model” of fighting coronavirus as he lifted a nationwide state of emergency after seven weeks.
Speaking at a press conference on Monday evening in Tokyo, Mr Abe said that Japan had avoided an explosive increase in cases without the compulsory lockdowns used in Europe or the US.
The ending of the state of emergency in the last five prefectures it covered — Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba and Hokkaido — will mean that the world’s fourth-largest economy can start to reopen for business.
“In a characteristically Japanese way, we have all but brought this epidemic under control in the last month and a half,” said Mr Abe. “Surely, it shows the power of the Japan model.”
Japan’s constitution prohibits a compulsory lockdown but, under the state of emergency that began on April 7, the government requested voluntary social distancing and business closures.
Under that regime, the number of new Covid-19 cases fell from 600-700 a day in mid-April to about 20-30 a day last week. The country has diagnosed 16,581 cases of coronavirus with 830 deaths — many fewer than similar-sized populations in Europe or the US.
As well as being an appeal to national pride, the prime minister’s remarks are likely to fuel debate about how Japan managed coronavirus and whether its approach could be replicated elsewhere.
Japan not only avoided a compulsory lockdown, with some restaurants continuing to serve meals throughout the past seven weeks, but nor has it carried out mass testing for Covid-19.
Local explanations for Japan’s success include a culture of wearing face masks and obedience to government requests, and the effectiveness of the country’s contact-tracing system. However, the decisive factor or combination of factors is not clear.
Mr Abe said the number of patients hospitalised with the virus, which at one point exceeded 10,000, had fallen below 2,000 and a panel of experts judged that the entire country was at a safe level to reopen.
Despite its relative success, Shinzo Abe’s approach has been unpopular with the public © Kim Kyung-hoon/AP
“To everybody who has co-operated and patiently endured through this, I thank you from my heart,” said the prime minister.
Despite Japan’s relative success in fighting Covid-19, Mr Abe’s performance has been unpopular with the public. His approval ratings fell to a record low of 29 per cent in a new poll by the Asahi newspaper.
The public disapproved of the prime minister’s handling of the virus by a majority of 57 per cent to 30 per cent, criticising the lack of testing and the government’s strategy to support the economy.
Even though the state of emergency has been lifted, the country is not expected to open for business fully. Company employees are being urged to continue working from home while high-risk businesses such as gyms and karaoke parlours are expected to remain closed for the time being.
Japan’s professional baseball league said that it would start play from June 19 without spectators. Concerts and cultural events will be allowed to restart with up to 100 people, with social distancing measures in place, and then the cap will gradually be increased.
“Keeping a close eye on the situation with infections, then step by step over the next month and the month after that, we will get back to normal,” Mr Abe said.