Japan Widens Virus Restrictions 01/21 06:10
TOKYO (AP) -- Restaurants and bars will close early in Tokyo and a dozen
other areas across Japan beginning Friday as the country widens COVID-19
restrictions due to the omicron variant, which has caused cases to surge to new
highs in metropolitan areas.
The restraint, which is something of a pre-state of emergency, is the first
since September and is scheduled to last through Feb. 13. With three other
prefectures -- Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi -- under similar measures since
early January, the state of restraint now covers 16 areas, or one-third of the
While many Japanese adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, few have
gotten a booster shot, which has been a vital protection from the highly
contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The Health Ministry on Friday approved Pfizer vaccinations for children aged
5-11, who are increasingly vulnerable to infection.
Throughout the pandemic, Japan has resisted the use of lockdowns to limit
the spread of the virus and has focused on requiring eateries to close early
and not serve alcohol, and on urging the public to wear masks and practice
social distancing, as the government seeks to minimize damage to the economy.
Under the latest measures, most eateries are asked to close by 8 or 9 p.m.,
while large events can allow full capacity if they have anti-virus plans. In
Tokyo, certified eateries that stop serving alcohol can stay open until 9 p.m.
while those serving alcohol must close an hour earlier.
Restaurants that close at 9 p.m. and don't serve alcohol receive 30,000 yen
($263) per day in government compensation, while those that close at 8 p.m. get
25,000 yen ($220) per day.
Critics say the measures, which almost exclusively target bars and
restaurants, make little sense and are unfair.
Mitsuru Saga, the manager of a Japanese-style "izakaya" restaurant in
downtown Tokyo, said he chose to serve alcohol and close at 8 p.m. despite
receiving less compensation from the government.
"We cannot make business without serving alcohol," Saga said in an interview
with Nippon Television. "It seems only eateries are targeted for restraints."
Some experts question the effectiveness of placing restraints only on
eateries, noting that infections show no signs of slowing in the three
prefectures that have already been subjected to the measures for nearly two
After more than two years of repeated restraints and social distancing
requests, Japanese are increasingly becoming less cooperative to such measures.
People are back to commuting on packed trains and shopping at crowded stores.
Tokyo's main train station of Shinagawa was packed as usual with commuters
rushing to work Friday morning.
Japan briefly eased border controls in November but quickly reversed them to
ban most foreign entrants when the omicron variant began spreading in other
countries. Japan says it will stick to the stringent border policy through the
end of February as the country tries to reinforce medical systems and treatment.
The tough border controls have triggered criticism from foreign students and
scholars who say the measures are not scientific.
A group of scholars and Japan-U.S. experts recently launched a petition, led
by Japan Society head Joshua Walker, calling on Prime Minister Fumio Kishida
and his government to allow foreign scholars and students to enter the country
again under careful preventive measures.
A letter to Kishida, signed by hundreds of academics and experts in
Japan-U.S. studies, urged his government to relax border controls to allow
educators, students and scholars to enter Japan and pursue their academic
activity. Many of them have been forced to give up Japan studies and focus
instead on other countries, including South Korea.
"They become the bridges between Japan and other societies. They are future
policymakers, business leaders, and teachers. They are the foundation of the
U.S.-Japan alliance and other international relationships that support Japan's
core national interests," the letter said. "The closure is harming Japan's
national interests and international relationships."
Japan recently announced it will allow 87 students on Japanese government
scholarships to enter the country, but petitioners say there are many others on
foreign government-sponsored scholarships who still cannot get in.
Tokyo logged 8,638 new cases of coronavirus infection Thursday, exceeding
the previous record of 7,377 set the day before.
At a Tokyo metropolitan government task force meeting, experts sounded the
alarm at the fast-paced upsurge led by omicron.
Norio Ohmagari, Director of the Disease Control and Prevention Center of
National Center for Global Health and an advisor to the Tokyo metropolitan
government panel, said Tokyo's daily new cases may exceed 18,000 within a week
if the increase continues at the current pace.
Though only some of the soaring number of infected people are hospitalized
and occupying less than one-third of available hospital beds in the Japanese
capital, experts say the rapid upsurge of the cases could quickly overwhelm the
medical systems once the infections further spread among the elderly population
who are more likely to become seriously ill.
Surging infections have begun to paralyze hospitals, schools and other
sectors in some areas.
The ministry has trimmed the required self-isolation period from 14 days to
10 for those who come into close contact with someone who tests positive for
COVID-19, and to seven days for essential workers if they test negative.
While about 80% of Japanese have received their first two vaccine doses, the
rollout of booster shots has been slow and has reached only 1.4 % of the
population so far.