Commuters wearing masks near JR Shinbashi Station in Tokyo. The city is popular with tourists worldwide. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Japan is on “maximum alert” after logging a record number of daily coronavirus infections, the prime minister said Thursday, though no immediate restrictions are planned.

More than 2,000 cases were recorded nationwide on Wednesday, with nearly 500 in the capital Tokyo alone.

While small compared with figures seen in some other countries, the numbers represent a sharp rise in cases for Japan, where testing is often less wide-scale than in other parts of the world.

“We are now in a situation of maximum alert,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga answers reporters’ questions about measures against the Covid-19 coronavirus at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo on Thursday.. Photo: AFP/STR/JIJI PRESS

“I ask you, the Japanese people, to fully implement principles such as wearing masks,” Suga added, urging people to wear them even while talking during meals in restaurants.

National broadcaster NHK said Suga had asked expert advisers to meet on Thursday and Friday to examine the growing number of infections before the government takes any further measures.

Suga said he would support local regions if they asked businesses to close early, and that restrictions including limiting groups at restaurants to four people should be considered.

Tokyo is expected to raise its alert level to the highest of a four-tier scale on Thursday, but the move does not come with automatic restrictions.

Local media said the capital was not likely to request early business closures for now.

Japan has so far taken a comparatively relaxed approach to coronavirus restrictions, with even a nationwide state of emergency in the spring carrying no obligation for businesses to close or people to stay at home.

And while testing has ramped up, it has remained comparatively low, with about 5,000-6,000 people tested a day in metropolitan Tokyo, home to nearly 14 million people.

Still, Japan has seen a relatively small outbreak so far, with close to 121,000 recorded infections and just over 1,900 deaths since the virus was first detected in the country in January.

Debate over causes

Have Japanese, particularly Tokyoites, slacked off on Covid-19 precautions. That appears to be something of a consensus view.

Tokyo recorded 493 new Covid-19 infections on Wednesday – the city’s highest daily figure since the pandemic began.

Infections are gradually increasing across Japan and on Tuesday the northern Hokkaido region asked people in its capital city to avoid non-essential outings if infection prevention measures cannot be taken.

Evidence of slackness is easy to find. “The man next to me on the Shinkansen right now has his mask around his chin … drives me crazy!” a passenger from Nagano to Tokyo complained in a message. “A few days ago- on the Shinkansen leaving Tokyo the teenage girls kept taking their masks off to put on make-up and take selfies. Theirs were off more than on during the whole trip.”

“We were out late at Bi Camera and got a bite to eat,” a Tokyo woman wrote. “We had to go to at least 5 restaurants before we found one that was not crowded with people packed near each other. People are getting complacent it appears.”

“We have folks in Japan trying to import stupidity,” said a Kanazawa resident pointing to a photo of anti-testing protesters in Tokyo’s fashionable Shibuya district whose antics are featured on social media. “Luckily, nobody is paying them much attention. I dare guess ‘Russian troll,’ but this group can be anything. Curious who is financing this foolishness and what the motive is.”

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Virus and virus-test deniers demonstrate in Shibuya, Tokyo. Source: Facebook

Anyone walking around at street level, or downtown at first-basement level, in Tokyo can see that restaurants and nightspots are drawing far more customers than they did when people were more cautious about gathering in groups.

Some people assigned blame to a travel promotion campaign that started under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “The most asinine idea in the history of asinine ideas,” read one social media complaint. “WTF was Abe thinking? And now we’re getting hit hard in Hokkaido and up to level 4.”

Market takes note

Tokyo stocks closed lower on Wednesday – and then opened lower on Thursday, extending falls on Wall Street, as concerns over the increase in virus infections offset optimism about Covid-19 vaccines.

The benchmark Nikkei 225 index was down Thursday morning 0.34%, or 87.20 points, at 25,640.94 in early trade, while the broader Topix index slipped 0.13%, or 2.24 points, to 1,718.41.

“Japanese shares are seen dominated by sell-orders as investors are disheartened by a rise in the number of new infections at home and abroad,” Mizuho Securities said.

The dollar fetched 103.91 yen in early Asian trade, against 103.85 yen in New York late Wednesday.

In Tokyo, airlines were among losers, with Japan Airlines dropping 2.18% to 1,933 yen and ANA Holdings trading down 1.71% at 2,525 yen.

Among others, Sony was down 0.67% at 9,175 yen and Uniqlo casual wear operator Fast Retailing was down 0.62% at 84,670 yen.

Panasonic was up 0.51% at 1,074.5 yen after the firm said it has signed a partnership with two Norwegian firms to develop a “green battery” business targeting the European market, including for electric cars.

On Wednesday automakers and airlines had moved lower on worries that economic activity might shrink after reports said the Tokyo government in a meeting Thursday may raise its virus alert level and recommend that shops close early.