Japanese Prime Minister Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a face mask. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

After days of intense debate, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Monday that the government plans to declare a state of emergency on Tuesday – a state that would usher in the closest thing Japan has yet experienced to the kind of lockdowns seen in cities and countries across Europe and the United States.

Abe also said he was proposing a stimulus package worth US$1 trillion, which is likely to be agreed upon by parties on Tuesday, Japanese media reported.

“We hope to declare a state of emergency as early as tomorrow after listening to the opinions of the advisory panel,” Abe told reporters in Tokyo, according to AFP.

Abe cited a rapid increase of new infections, notably in Tokyo and Osaka, the country’s two largest cities, as reasons for the move. Tokyo had 148 news cases on Sunday and 83 on Monday.

“Considering that medical institutions are facing a critical situation, I have received opinions that the government should prepare to declare a state of emergency,” Abe said.

With 3,654 Covid-19 cases and 85 deaths as of Monday evening, Japan has suffered far less than European countries and North America – or even neighbor South Korea, which has been lauded for its fight against the coronavirus.

But while Japan has managed to keep Covid-19 infections at a manageable level so far, it has faced criticism for its failure to test more widely, and there has been considerable questioning of its numbers.

A state of emergency would be declared for Tokyo, Osaka, and five other prefectures, according to Abe. The declaration does not permit the kind of legal measures and sanctions that underwrite lockdowns in some parts of Europe, but would empower city governors to “request” the closure of schools and businesses.

These moves are known to be favored by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who – since the announcement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics postponement by the International Olympic Committee – has been adamant that some form of lockdown is necessary to slow the Covid-19 rampage.

Japan observers say that while the measure may appear weak, given Japan’s noted social culture of conformity, citizens and merchants are expected to comply. Indeed, a “trial run” by Goike led to near-deserted streets and businesses in Tokyo’s nightlife hotspots over the weekend of March 28-29.

Abe added that his proposed stimulus package of about 108 trillion yen would cushion the damage to the world’s third-biggest economy. “This is worth 20% of GDP, an unprecedented scale,” Abe said, according to AFP.