Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has lifted a state of emergency in Tokyo and four other areas that were still under coronavirus restrictions, gradually reopening the world’s third-largest economy and calling on people to adapt to a “new normal”.
“Recently, new infection cases have fallen below 50 for the entire nation, and what was once nearly 10,000 hospitalised cases, that has now fallen below 2,000,” Abe told reporters on Monday.
“Our lifting criteria, which has been set at an extremely strict level compared to the world, has been met nationwide,” he said.
Experts on a government-commissioned panel approved the lifting of the emergency in Tokyo, neighbouring Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures, and in Hokkaido to the north, which had more cases and remained under the emergency declaration after it was removed in most of Japan earlier this month.
Abe lauded Japan’s success in flattening the curve but warned the lifting of the emergency did not mean the end of the outbreak, urging people to continue to avoid the “three Cs”: closed spaces, crowded places and close contact.
“If we lower our guard, the infection will spread very rapidly … we need to be vigilant,” he said. “We need to create a new lifestyle; from now on, we need to change our way of thinking.”
Japan, with about 16,600 confirmed cases and about 850 deaths, has so far avoided a large outbreak like those experienced in the United States, Brazil and parts of Europe despite its softer restrictions.
But the Japanese economy has fallen into a recession, and public discontent over Abe’s handling of the coronavirus has sent his support ratings tumbling.
Recent media surveys show public support for his cabinet has plunged below 30 percent, the lowest since he returned to office in December 2012.
Abe declared a state of emergency on April 7 in several parts of Japan, including Tokyo, expanded it to the entire nation later in the month, and then extended it until the end of May.
Under the state of emergency, people were asked to stay at home, and non-essential businesses were asked to close or reduce operations, but there was no enforcement.
Since May 14, when the measures were lifted in most of Japan, more people have left their homes and shops have begun reopening.
Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said recent data suggests that infections have slowed enough and pressure on the medical system has fallen enough to allow a gradual resumption of social and economic activity.
He said Tokyo, Kanagawa and Hokkaido, where the number of infections is still fluctuating, need to be watched closely.
On Monday, Matsuya department store, a landmark in Tokyo’s posh Ginza shopping district, resumed operations.
Sales staff wearing plastic face shields welcomed customers with bows but no verbal greetings under new guidelines.
Individual prefectures are allowed to impose their own measures. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said last week that the capital would reopen in three phases, starting with schools, libraries, museums, and longer service hours for restaurants.
She said theatres, sports facilities and other commercial establishments would be next, with nightclubs, karaoke and live music venues in the final phase.