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Japan's Policies

May 16, 2003


Japan Adopts Measures to Prevent SARS

     Amid the rampant spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in such areas as China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, the Japanese government has strengthened measures to prevent people in Japan and Japanese abroad from becoming infected with the deadly virus. The government has recommended that Japanese leave Beijing, which has been one of the hardest hit places, and has prepared to defend against an outbreak at home, though as of May 16 there have not yet been any confirmed cases of SARS in Japan. The government is urging people who have returned from China to isolate themselves in their homes for a certain period of time and has decided to allow what would effectively be the involuntary hospitalization of persons suspected of having SARS. Japanese corporations with operations in China are temporarily recalling Japanese staff, and it is feared that there may be an adverse impact on production there. Some corporations are predicting that they may suffer serious setbacks because of SARS.

Returnees Urged to Stay Home

     As SARS spread through China, Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a warning on April 29 urging travelers to any part of China to be "fully cautious." Out of the four levels of travel advisories, this is the lowest classification. The next higher level of travel advisory, "consider whether travel is necessary," had already been applied to Beijing. The government issued the warning for all of China on April 29 after determining that there was a danger of the virus spreading from Beijing to the provinces when Chinese made domestic trips during a holiday period at the beginning of May. The government urged Japanese nationals in Beijing to leave the city and consider returning to Japan, and it urged Japanese students studying in China to come home. The Foreign Ministry has already expanded its "consider whether travel is necessary" advisory from Beijing to include Guangdong and Shanxi Provinces. These measures are still in place. At the same time, the travel advisory on Hanoi, Vietnam, which has successfully contained SARS, has been lifted.

     While urging Japanese travelers to show caution when going abroad, the government also has been considering what measures to take in the event of an outbreak at home. On May 1 the government assembled the heads of relevant ministries and agencies for a meeting on SARS to decide on appropriate measures. At the meeting it was decided to call on people returning from China to remain at home for 10 days, which is believed to be the incubation period for SARS. In the event that Japanese abroad are infected with SARS, the task force decided to dispatch Japanese doctors to treat them.

Probable Patients Can Be Forcibly Hospitalized

     Following the meeting of the relevant cabinet ministers, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare formulated measures for what would be done in the event that a patient inside Japan were found to be infected with SARS. Up to now, probable SARS patients were expected to check themselves into the hospital voluntarily. The Health Ministry, however, put forward a new formula that would allow prefectural governments to direct such patients to hospitalize themselves. In the event that a patient did not follow such directions, he or she could be forcibly hospitalized. And even before it can be confirmed that a patient has SARS, suspected patients will be treated as though they have the disease, with the cost of hospitalization being covered by public funds. These measures will also apply to people who have had direct contact with someone suspected of being infected, such as family members and co-workers. These people can be advised to undergo a medical examination.

     While some countries, such as China, include possible cases in their statistics on SARS patients, Japan will not count someone as a SARS patient until the infection can be confirmed by an expert panel of the Health Ministry. Because there would be risk of the virus spreading if the people who had been in contact with a possible SARS patient were not tracked until the case could be confirmed, however, possible patients will be treated the same as confirmed patients, thus eliminating that risk.

     Local governments, meanwhile, are making preparations to handle SARS patients. According to a survey conducted by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun at the beginning of May, 46 of Japan's 47 prefectures had drafted action plans for responding in the event of an outbreak; the remaining prefecture finalized its plan soon afterward. In addition, some 250 medical institutions around Japan have readied facilities especially for dealing with SARS patients, including isolated rooms with "negative air pressure" to prevent the virus from spreading within the hospital.

Damage to Corporate Profits Unavoidable?

     The spread of SARS in China is having a major impact on the many Japanese companies that have production and sales operations there. Acting on advice from the Foreign Ministry, Toyota Motor Corp. temporarily brought back its Japanese employees stationed in Tianjin, Beijing, and Chengdu to Japan to coincide with the Golden Week holiday period. Of the 67 people who came back to Japan, the return of 17 of them to the Beijing office has been postponed for the time being. Honda Motor Co., which has a plant in Guangzhou, brought back the majority of its Japanese staff there, numbering several dozen, and it has no plans to repost them to Guangzhou for the time being. In addition, other companies, including Fuji Photo Film Co. and Daikin Industries, have ordered their Japanese employees home, and Kubota Corp. temporarily closed its Beijing office.

     Some Japanese corporations are expecting to be hard hit by the SARS outbreak in China. One manufacturer of photo equipment has said that the possible closure of one of its plants in Suzhou may impact on shipments of one of its hot-selling digital cameras. This maker has also noted that sales of color film are down throughout Asia, as the number of travelers in the region continues to decline due to SARS. Trading company Mitsui & Co. has indicated that there have been delays in shipping raw materials and textiles from China and that its sales might drop by as much as \100 billion if SARS is not quickly brought under control. Itochu Corp. is said to be experiencing delays in its negotiations in China for fall and winter apparel. Taking into consideration the unfavorable impact of SARS on businesses, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has decided on a formula to protect companies against trade losses under the Trade and Investment Law in the event that they are forced to close factories.

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