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Japan’s COVID penalty law: five things to know

  • February 3, 2021
  • , The Japan Times , 8:50 p.m.
  • English Press

MITSURU OBE, Nikkei staff writer


TOKYO — Japan, in full reversal of its voluntary compliance approach, enacted bills on Wednesday to fine violators of social distancing rules, as the country sharply steps up its fight against the coronavirus pandemic.


The bills were passed by the Diet late Wednesday and are expected to take effect mid-February, giving the public short notice.


Japan was once praised for keeping the number of infections low without having to impose strict rules. But the recent surge that started in early November has caused a rethink of the so-called “Japan model” of voluntary compliance, as the nation faces the task of convincing the rest of the world that it can safely host the Summer Olympics, which Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is determined to proceed with. Here are five things to know about the law change.


Why now?

Japan has struggled to bring the current wave under control, despite the state of emergency declaration since Jan. 8. The curfew, enforced upon major metropolitan regions, has been extended by one month until March 7. During the monthlong state of emergency, the seven-day moving average of new cases has halved to some 3,000, but is still substantially higher than before the current wave of around 500.


The hospital occupancy rates remain stubbornly high across the metropolitan regions as seriously ill patients take about a month to recover.

Vaccinations, due to start this month, are not seen as a silver bullet either, as they, too, are voluntary and may take months to roll out. The capacity at hospitals is not expected to expand quickly, despite generous subsidies offered by the government, in part because training health care workers takes time. The government hopes the punitive law will bring the disease under control and buy time for long-term solutions such as capacity expansion and vaccinations.


No more evasion or violation

Prefectural governors will be allowed to issue orders to business operators, such as bars and karaoke joints to close or shorten operating hours and impose fines of up to 300,000 yen or about $3,000 on violators. The Diet, or parliament, requires governors to report to it before invoking such laws.


Infected people face fines of up to 500,000 yen if they refuse hospitalization or leave hospital before recovery. Fines of up to 300,000 will be slapped on individuals who do not cooperate with public health officials conducting infection tests or interviews.


Hospitals have to play ball

Hospitals will now be required to play an bigger part in the country’s fight against COVID. Most patients are being treated by large public hospitals. Private hospitals, that are generally smaller, have been less cooperative in accepting patients, fearing internal spreads and negative impacts on their businesses. The health minister and the governor are now allowed to request hospitals to accept patients or face being named if they refuse to comply.


No digital surveillance

Digital surveillance of individuals is not included in the legislation. In some countries, the government has access to individuals’ location data and use it to track down those who had come in close contact with infected people.


The Japanese government, however, is trying to accelerate digitization of its health care system in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. It is looking to create a nationwide system to manage the inoculation campaign and keep record of vaccinations.


Other Asian countries

The Japanese government has so far been cautious about any move to restrict individual rights, fearing a backlash from the public and opposition parties.


Other Asian governments have not been so reticent in introducing enforceable rules.


In South Korea, masks are mandatory even on the streets in some municipalities. Infected people must self-quarantine or face arrest. There are already cases where people have been sentenced to months in jail for such violations.


In Taiwan, people who violate self-quarantine requests could face fines of up to $30,000.

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