Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday lifted the state of emergency in the western prefectures of Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo, as the spread of the novel coronavirus has slowed enough to justify the gradual easing of curbs on economic activity.
The Tokyo metropolitan area and Hokkaido will remain under the state of emergency but Abe said they may see it lifted as early as Monday after a review by health experts.
A total of 42 out of the country's 47 prefectures are now out of the coronavirus emergency but the remaining five -- Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa, Saitama and Hokkaido -- make up about a third of the Japanese economy.
"In the areas where the emergency has been lifted, social and economic activities can increase in stages," Abe said at a meeting of a government task force on the coronavirus response.
"The challenge of creating a new normal is beginning across the country," he added.
An advisory panel gave the go-ahead to the government move after weighing criteria -- the number of newly reported cases over one week, the availability of medical care and the capacity to provide virus tests and monitor the spread of the virus.
In the Tokyo area and Hokkaido, the number of infections has been falling and the situation faced by hospitals has been improving, Abe said. But he asked people in these areas to avoid nonessential outings and travel across prefectural borders.
Abe faces the task of sustaining the downward trend in new cases while allowing more social and economic activities to resume as the Japanese economy has slipped into a recession.
The government is compiling a second extra budget for the current fiscal year to boost support for struggling households and businesses.
Even before Abe's lifting of the emergency, Osaka Gov Hirofumi Yoshimura eased business closure requests for some facilities, such as department stores and movie theaters.
One criterion used by the government and experts is whether new infections have fallen below 0.5 per 100,000 people in the past week. In Tokyo with a population of about 14 million, that means the number of people infected with the virus would have to be fewer than 70 in one week.
Speaking in a parliamentary session, economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo had cleared that threshold. Tokyo and Kanagawa in the metropolitan area and Hokkaido in northern Japan have yet to satisfy the 0.5 criterion.
The government plans to continue asking people to avoid confined and crowded places and close contact with others to lower the risk of transmission, with Abe calling for a new lifestyle as the fight against COVID-19 is expected to continue without treatment drugs and vaccines.
Japan has so far prevented an explosive surge in infections and reduced the number of newly reported cases in recent weeks as a result of stay-at-home and business suspension requests made under the state of emergency.
Compliance with the measures has been voluntary as the country has not employed the hard lockdown steps seen in Europe and the United States.
In April, a monthlong state of emergency was first imposed in limited areas including Tokyo and Osaka and expanded nationwide. Abe then extended it until May 31, but the measure was removed in 39 prefectures last week after the spread of the virus was kept in check.
The government divided the remaining eight prefectures into groups based on geographical proximity and economic linkages in lifting the state of emergency, as sought by local governors.
One group consists of Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo in the Kansai region, while the other includes Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama. Hokkaido does not belong to either group but has been hit by a fresh wave of infections.
Tokyo is the worst hit among the 47 prefectures with more than 5,000 infection cases but in recent days new cases have been in the single digits.
Still, health experts say it is too early to lower the guard against COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, and infections could surge.
If the risk of an explosive surge in cases becomes evident in a certain prefecture, the government will examine the situation and may place it under a state of emergency again, Nishimura said.
Since the end of the Golden Week holidays in early May -- a period during which the government sought to prevent travel beyond prefectural borders -- crowds have returned in urban areas, raising concern about a rise in infections in the days ahead.
The state of emergency is designed to prevent the collapse of health care systems due to the overcrowding of hospitals and lack of medical supplies.
On top of requests for staying home and temporarily shutting shops or businesses, prefectural governors can expropriate private land and buildings for emergency medical use. They can also requisition medical supplies and food from companies that refuse to sell them and punish those that hoard or do not comply.
Legislation to allow Abe to declare a state of emergency was passed in mid-March.© KYODO