Japan coronavirus cases pass 5,000 as state of emergency fails to keep people home

By Leika Kihara
Spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Tokyo

By Leika Kihara

TOKYO (Reuters) - The total number of Japanese novel coronavirus infections hit at least 5,002 on Thursday, NHK public broadcaster said, showing no signs of slowing despite a state of emergency being imposed this week on Tokyo and six other areas.

The milestone came as the central bank warned the coronavirus pandemic had created an "extremely high" level of uncertainty for the world's third-largest economy, with regional economies facing their worst conditions since the global financial crisis a decade ago.

Japanese authorities are hoping to contain the outbreak without imposing a mandatory lockdown that could deal a major blow to an economy already struggling to cope with the virus outbreak.

Once declared by the central government, the state of emergency gives local governors stronger legal authority to urge people to stay home and businesses to close.

In contrast to stringent lockdowns in some countries, mandating fines and arrests for non-compliance, enforcement will rely more on peer pressure and a deep-rooted Japanese tradition of respect for authority.

Tokyo's nightlife districts of Shibuya, Akasaka and Ginza areas were much quieter than usual overnight as the state of emergency took effect, but elsewhere on Thursday things seemed as busy as usual.

The number of new infections rose by at least 29 on Thursday to 5002, while the death toll edged up by 1 to 105, according to Japanese media reports.

Hideaki Omura, the governor of the central Japan prefecture of Aichi, said he would declare a state of emergency on Friday even if the central government did not add it to the national list of emergency prefectures.

Aichi includes the city of Nagoya and hosts Toyota Motor Corp.

"If we watch what's happened in the last week it doesn't look good and so we're making preparations," he said.


ECONOMY ON BRINK

Even with less stringent restrictions compared with other countries, analysts polled by Reuters expect Japan to slip into a deep recession this year as the virus outbreak wreaks havoc on business and daily life.

While aggressive central bank actions across the globe have eased financial market tensions somewhat, corporate funding strains were worsening, Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda told a quarterly meeting of the bank's regional branch managers on Thursday.

"The spread of the coronavirus is having a severe impact on Japan's economy through declines in exports, output, demand from overseas tourists and private consumption," he said.

"For the time being, we won't hesitate to take additional monetary easing steps if needed, with a close eye on developments regarding the coronavirus outbreak."

The BOJ cut its assessment on all of Japan's nine regions for the first time in 11 years, saying their economies were weakening or under strong downward pressure.

"The situation is quite severe. Business sentiment is souring. Firms dealing with inbound tourism and consumption are seeing sharp declines in sales," Yasuhiro Yamada, the BOJ's Osaka branch manager overseeing the Kinki western Japan region, told a news conference.

Shares of Oriental Land Co fell on Thursday after the operator of Tokyo Disneyland said it would keep the amusement park shut until mid-May.

Entertainment facility operator Uchiyama Holdings said it was closing 43 karaoke shops and 11 restaurants until May 6.

Fast Retailing said sales at its Uniqlo outlets were down 27% in March from a year earlier. But retail group Seven & i Holdings Co reported a 3% rise in annual operating profit, thanks to robust sales of food and other daily necessities.

Kuroda's remarks highlight the strong concern policymakers have over the outlook for Japan's economy and how companies continue to struggle to generate cash, despite government and central bank promises to flood the economy with funds.

At its policy meeting later this month, the BOJ is likely to make a rare projection that the economy will shrink this year, sources have told Reuters.

The BOJ eased monetary policy in March by pledging to boost purchases of assets ranging from government bonds, commercial paper, corporate bonds and trust funds investing in stocks.

The government also rolled out a nearly $1 trillion stimulus package to soften the economic blow.

Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: open https://tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7 in an external browser.


(Reporting by Leika Kihara; Additional reporting by Yoshifumi Takemoto, Elaine Lies and Kaori Kaneko; Editing by Chris Gallagher and Stephen Coates)