Japan lifts state of emergency after six months as Covid-19 cases steadily decline

Subways were packed, airlines saw a spike in reservations, and bars in Tokyo resumed selling alcohol on Friday as Japan ended its state of emergency, leaving the country without any restrictions for the first time since April.

The decision to lift Covid-19 curbs was made by the government of outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga earlier this week as infection numbers dropped. It came into force on Thursday. The number of daily cases has now fallen to less than 1,600, compared to around 25,000 at the peak of the outbreak in August, easing pressure on the country’s health system.

The improvement in the epidemiological situation has been attributed to the country’s vaccination drive, as 59% of the population have already received two shots of a Covid-19 jab, along with the willingness of Japanese citizens to follow public health guidelines.

Tokyo and 18 other prefectures have been under a state of emergency for months, while a so-called quasi-state of emergency remained in place in eight other prefectures. Japan, which has a population of 125 million, is divided into 47 prefectures, meaning the curbs covered more than half of the country. The latest state of emergency was introduced in Tokyo in July before the opening of the Summer Olympics.

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However, Japanese anti-coronavirus measures weren’t nearly as harsh as the lockdowns and curfews introduced in many other countries. Under the state of emergency, people were asked to refrain from traveling, limit outings for nonessential reasons, and avoid crowded places, while restaurants and bars were banned from selling booze and told to close by 8pm.

The government now plans to gradually ease various restrictions to revive the economy following the impact of Covid-19, while simultaneously avoiding a resurgence of the virus.

Early on Friday, trains on the Tokyo subway were packed with mask-wearing passengers as many employees were returning to their workplaces after a lengthy period of working from home – despite the approaching Typhoon Mindulle bringing rain and strong winds to the capital area.

“I feel it’s a new start,” an office clerk, who was back in the office after a year of working remotely, told AP.

The country’s largest carrier, All Nippon Airways, said that it had received 50,000 reservations since the lifting of the state of emergency was announced, which was 10 times more compared to a month ago.

The number of visitors allowed at concerts, sporting events and other mass gatherings has been increased from 5,000 to 10,000, with Tokyo Disney Resort and Universal Studios Japan theme parks already saying that they’re going to let in as many people as the new limit allows.

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Alcohol has returned to Japanese restaurants and bars, while establishments with sufficient anti-coronavirus measures are permitted to stay open an hour longer, till 9pm.

“I really want to welcome this as a first step,” Atsunori Matsuda, who owns a place in Tokyo’s Shimbashi district, told Kyodo News. “Not having alcohol at an eatery had been a huge blow,” the 80-year-old complained. But Matsuda now expects things to improve, sending emailed invitations to customers and ordering barrels of sake.

Since the start of the pandemic in December 2019, Japan has seen almost 1.7 million cases of Covid-19 and over 17,600 deaths related to the virus.

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