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Until recently, Japan seemed successful in fighting the pandemic. It faced far fewer COVID-19 cases than, say, nearby China. But Japan's caseload is now up to 2,200, and officials warn the number is still rising. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is debating whether to declare a national emergency. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Japan's approach to the coronavirus has been effective with past epidemics, says Dr. Masahiro Kami, chairman of the Tokyo-based nonprofit Medical Governance Research Institute. The basic idea, he says, is to isolate clusters of infected people, trace whom they've contacted and test people with symptoms.
MASAHIRO KAMI: (Speaking Japanese).
KUHN: "They had used this method in previous outbreaks of plague and cholera. But this time," he says, "they failed to consider that people who show no symptoms can infect many others."
The government's National Institute of Infectious Diseases was put in charge of testing, and Kami says it tried to protect its turf. One result, he says, is that Japan has been testing a fraction of the patients it's capable of.
KAMI: (Speaking Japanese).
KUHN: "The Abe administration did not explicitly order the institute to do it this way," he says. "But they also did not strongly criticize it. The administration also may not have wanted an increase in case numbers to affect the Olympics."
But the virus forced Abe, last week, to postpone the Olympics until next year. The day after he did that, case numbers reported in Tokyo more than doubled, although the government denies that had anything to do with the games. In the following days, prefectural governors, including Tokyo's, and medical experts called for a state of emergency. Here is Satoshi Kamayachi, executive board member of the Japan Medical Association, speaking at a press conference this week.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
SATOSHI KAMAYACHI: (Speaking Japan).
KUHN: "It would be too late to declare a state of emergency after the explosive spread of infections takes place," he said. "We're now in a situation where that declaration could already have been made."
Corporate leaders, though, are reportedly against it because of the impact it would have on the economy. And so far, Abe seems to have sided with them. Here's what he said in a press conference Saturday night.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE: (Speaking Japanese).
KUHN: "At this point, we don't need to declare a state of emergency." But he added, "we are right now on the brink."
A national emergency would not necessarily be draconian. It would empower local governors to request people to stay at home but would not mandate tough punishments. Nevertheless...
LAWRENCE REPETA: The notion of emergency powers is very controversial in Japan.
REPETA: That's Lawrence Repeta, former professor of law at Meiji University in Tokyo. What concerns many Japanese, he says, is that Prime Minister Abe wants to go further and write emergency powers into Japan's constitution, basically giving him the power to rule by decree. Repeta says Abe believes...
REPETA: We should rewrite the constitution in order to create a lower level of individual rights protection and stronger governmental power.
KUHN: Opinion polls show that most Japanese oppose Abe's constitutional revisions. Many are mindful of the lessons of history from the 1930s, when police were empowered to quash dissent and militarists led Japan into World War II.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.