Can Japan balance controlling COVID-19 with rebooting the economy?

Japan is gradually shifting its focus from strictly containing the novel coronavirus pandemic to resuscitating the economy, with a series of campaigns to encourage domestic travel and recreation.

But, as Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike once likened pursuing the two simultaneously as “stepping on the gas and brakes at the same time,” it’s difficult to strike a balance. Experts say the mixed messages may be confusing for the public.

On Friday, the government said Tokyo will join the Go To Travel campaign on Thursday next week and that officials are moving forward with a plan to start the Go To Event campaign — which looks to revive the sports and entertainment industry by subsidizing admissions — as soon as mid-October.

“The economy needs a chance to recover but society must reopen safely and under the right conditions,” said Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan’s response to the virus, on Friday during a meeting of the government’s coronavirus subcommittee. “We cannot have one without the other.”

The discrepancy, experts say, is likely to create cognitive dissonance that could shift responsibility away from public officials and onto the shoulders of individual consumers.

Travel agencies prepare on Sept. 18 for Tokyo's inclusion in the Go To Travel campaign from Thursday next week. | KYODO

Travel agencies prepare on Sept. 18 for Tokyo’s inclusion in the Go To Travel campaign from Thursday next week. | KYODO“The government is trying to speak out of both sides of its mouth,” said Kenneth McElwain, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science. “It might be confusing to a lot of people — the dueling messages from the government — but I think there’s a risk aversion that is likely to persist for a while.”

Tokyo officials say new cases in the capital are on a downward trend but that countermeasures should be maintained regardless. In the seven days leading up to Thursday, the average number of daily cases was 148.6, down from 345.3 for the seven days through Aug. 6, according to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

As public dining and recreational events in Tokyo return, and the capital joins the rest of the nation in trying to revive domestic tourism, officials say it’s crucial that virus countermeasures are strictly followed by consumers and service providers alike for the country’s economy to rebound without further spreading the virus.

Tokyo residents will gain access to discounts on travel and lodging expenses when the city joins the Go To Travel campaign, a ¥1.35 trillion program intended to revive the tourism industry from which the capital was initially excluded when it began in late July.

People visit Sensoji temple in Tokyo's Asakusa district on Tuesday. | AFP-JIJI

People visit Sensoji temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa district on Tuesday. | AFP-JIJIInitially, opponents raised concerns over the danger of promoting domestic travel during a pandemic. After the campaign started, many questioned the economic viability — and purpose — of a subsidy program lacking the patronage of the capital’s 13.9 million residents.

The Go To Event campaign will offer a one-time discount of 20 percent or up to ¥2,000 for tickets to sporting events and music concerts.

Voluntary restrictions on businesses have been eased in recent weeks.

On Sept. 15, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government lifted a request for restaurants, bars and other food establishments located within the city’s 23 wards to stop serving customers at 10 p.m.

Earlier this month, a limit that capped attendance at sporting events to 5,000 people was also lifted, though organizers are still asked to restrict attendance at venues to half capacity.

“The decision (to begin the Go To Event campaign) hasn’t yet been finalized but discussions are moving in that direction,” said Shigeru Omi, chair of the government’s coronavirus subcommittee, during a news conference Friday. “It’s the subcommittee’s position that the government must communicate honestly to the people what the risks are and how to mitigate or avoid them.”

People pose at the entrance to Sensoji temple in Tokyo's Asakusa district on Tuesday. | AFP-JIJI

People pose at the entrance to Sensoji temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa district on Tuesday. | AFP-JIJI


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Nathan Dawson
Nathan Dawson holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Language and Literature along with a Master of Philosophy degree in the Humanities. He is a science fiction and fantasy novelist, a political junkie, and a fan of heavy metal. Email:[email protected]