By Kevin Buckland
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s government defended tighter travel restrictions on visitors from China and South Korea, saying they were not too late to help slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, as Seoul protested the measures as “excessive”.
“The decision was the result of a comprehensive review of the information available about the situation in other countries and the effects of other measures,” chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference on Friday. “I think the timing is appropriate.”
The new measures, announced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday, came after weeks of criticism he was failing to tackle the outbreak head-on and coincided with the country’s biggest one-day increase in new infections.
The number of coronavirus cases in Japan stood at 1,057 as of Friday morning, with new infections reported from Yamaguchi prefecture in the southwest to Hokkaido in the north, according to national broadcaster NHK. Kyodo reported a doctor in his 20s in the eastern region of Sagamihara had also caught the virus, which has killed 12 people in Japan and more than 3,000 globally since first detected in China late last year.
The rapid spread of the disease has raised doubts about whether Tokyo will be able to host the Olympics this summer, but the government has been insistent in recent days that the competition will begin as scheduled on July 24.
Starting Monday, people arriving from China and South Korea will be quarantined for two weeks at designated sites. Japanese nationals will also be subject to the measures, Suga said.
From Saturday, the government will also bar entry to people who have been to areas of South Korea and Iran with high infection rates.
“It is extremely regrettable Japan took this unreasonable and excessive step without sufficient prior consultation with us, and we strongly urge immediate reconsideration,” South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Seoul would respond with countermeasures, although he gave no details on what actions could be taken.
Relations between South Korea and former colonial ruler Japan are already under strain by a dispute over wartime labor that has spilled into trade.
Japan’s economy minister acknowledged the restrictions could hurt inbound tourism, although he said the priority needs to be on preventing the spread of the virus.
“The quarantine steps could have a negative impact on tourism in the short-term, but the number of tourists from China has already significantly dropped,” Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters on Friday. “I will closely monitor the impact of the steps and how much we can curb infection.”
Chinese visitors in particular have been a lynchpin of Prime Minister Abe’s program for economic revitalization.
In a statement, Nishimura said the virus is having a major impact on the economy, and policy makers will take “necessary and ample” measures “without hesitation”.
The Bank of Japan may take steps this month to ensure companies hit by the outbreak do not face a financial squeeze before the March end of the current fiscal year, according to sources familiar with the central bank’s thinking.
Japan faces the risk of its first recession in nearly five years, with local residents also curbing spending and many businesses forced to stay closed because of the outbreak.
(Reporting by Kevin Buckland; Additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Lincoln Feast)