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Coronavirus: With no fear of penalties, Japanese defy stay-at-home requests

Under Japan’s coronavirus state of emergency, people have been asked to stay home. Many are not.

Some still have to commute to their jobs despite risks of infection, while others continue to dine out, picnic in parks and crowd into grocery stores with scant regard for social distancing.

On Wednesday, the first day of the “Golden Week” holidays that run through May 5, Tokyo’s leafy Shiba Park was packed with families with small children, day camping in tents.

The lure of heading out for Golden Week holidays is testing the public’s will to unite against a common enemy as health workers warn rising coronavirus cases are overwhelming the medical system in some places. Experts say a sense of urgency is missing, thanks to mixed messaging from the government and a lack of incentives to stay home.

In distant, tropical Okinawa, locals have resorted to posting social media appeals to tourists not to visit, “to protect our grannies and grandpas.”

“Please cancel your trip to Okinawa and wait until we can welcome you,” Okinawa’s governor Denny Tamaki tweeted. “Unfortunately Okinawa can provide no hospitality and our medical systems, including on remote islands, are in a state of emergency.”

In this country driven by conformity and consensus, the pandemic is pitting those willing to follow the rules against a sizable minority who are resisting the calls to stay home.

To get better compliance, the government needs stronger messaging, said Naoya Sekiya, a University of Tokyo professor and expert of social psychology and risk communications.

A tougher lockdown would also help.

While the halfhearted adherence to the calls to stay home has dismayed Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, none of those spurning the advice are breaking the law. Legally, the state of emergency can only involve requests for compliance. Violators face no penalties. There are few incentives to close shops.

The main message has been economy first, safety second: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has insisted Japan will not adopt European-style hard lockdowns that would paralyze the economy. His economy minister heads the government’s coronavirus task force meetings.

“The message coming from the government is rather mild, apparently trying to convey the need to stay home while prioritizing the economy,” Sekiya said. Since people lack a shared sense of crisis, instead of staying home they’re hoping for the best and assuming they won’t get infected, he said.

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