Nation lifts its final virus restriction
Judging by its statistics, Japan looked like a recipe for disaster in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Notoriously crowded public transport, the world's oldest population, a major cruise ship outbreak, and to top it all off - social distancing guidelines that weren't enforced by law.
But the country is now being hailed as a "success" story for its handling of the virus, having just lifted its final COVID-19 restriction by ending a nationwide state of emergency.
While other regions like the United States, United Kingdom and Italy continue to struggle with high death tolls and rising case numbers, Japan remains a mystery.
But the world's third-largest economy has fallen into recession, with support for Mr Abe subsequently tumbling.
Recent media surveys show public support for his Cabinet has plunged below 30 per cent, the lowest since he returned to office in December 2012.
JAPAN LIFTS FINAL VIRUS RESTRICTIONS
Japan's national emergency order was lifted across most areas earlier this month, with the exception of Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama and Hokkaido.
All have now been removed - six days earlier than expected.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned that, rather than going back to life as it was before COVID-19, citizens would have to adapt to a "new lifestyle".
"We had very stringent criteria for lifting the state of emergency. We have judged that we have met this," he told a nationally televised news conference.
Mr Abe also warned citizens would have to adapt to a "new normal" and continue to avoid the "three Cs" - closed spaces, crowded places and close contact.
"If we lower our guard, the infection will spread very rapidly … we need to be vigilant," he said. "We need to create a new lifestyle; from now on we need to change our way of thinking."
Japan has had about 16,600 confirmed cases and about 850 deaths - relatively low numbers compared to countries in western Europe and the United States.
Similar to Australia's three-point plan, Tokyo intends to reopen in three phases starting with schools, libraries, museums, and longer service hours for restaurants.
Phase two will include theatres, sports facilities, and other commercial establishments, followed finally by nightclubs, karaoke and live music houses.
Mr Abe also announced a new stimulus plan worth about 100 trillion yen to provide financial support for companies hit by the pandemic. Cabinet approval of a second supplementary budget to fund the additional stimulus is expected later this week.
Combined with an earlier 117 trillion yen stimulus, the amount of spending will be more than 200 trillion yen, he said. The new package will include loan programs to reduce the burden of rent for store owners and subsidies for local governments to step up regional measures.
Mr Abe declared the state of emergency on April 7 in several parts of Japan including Tokyo, which was expanded to the entire nation 10 days later and then extended until the end of May.
HOW DID JAPAN EMERGE SO SUCCESSFUL?
Earlier in the week, the head of the World Health Organisation hailed the result of Japan's efforts in tackling the spread of the new coronavirus as a "success".
WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus praised the country for stemming the epidemic in recent weeks, reducing the spread of infections from more than 700 cases a day at the peak of the outbreak, and for maintaining a relatively low death toll.
Japan has the world's oldest population and its capital, Tokyo is one of the most densely-populated cities in the world. In theory, the virus should have spread rapidly throughout it.
"With the world's oldest population, Japan seemed ripe for a major outbreak when the contagion reached its shores in January," The Japan Times reported.
"And Tokyo, one of the most densely populated megacities on the planet, resembled a petri dish.
"But every step of the way the world watched and waited for something that never came - at least, not yet."
Early incidents threatened Japan with disaster - careless airport health examinations for Japanese nationals evacuated from Wuhan in late January, when the virus began accelerating rapidly, and the disastrous disembarkation process for a virus-infested cruise ship in Yokohama Bay in February.
There are several reasons Japan may have fared relatively well to other countries like the United States.
The country's universal healthcare, combined with the fact that the majority of citizens were willing to wear masks, may have helped.
Yet many restaurants and businesses continued trading - a move that has seen cases explode in countries like Sweden.
Earlier this month, Shigeru Omi, former director of the Western Pacific Regional Office of the World Health Organisation and a top member of the Japanese government's expert coronavirus panel, told a news conference there were three likely factors contributing to Japan's success: its health care system, effective cluster tracing, and a propensity among its people for healthy living.
But the threat of a second wave still looms. In his remarks, Mr Abe said the lifting of the emergency does not mean the end of the outbreak.
He said further cases must be prevented and the economy must be preserved until vaccines and effective drugs become available.
"Our goal is to create a new normal," he said. "We need a new approach to resume our daily social and economic activity."
Originally published as Nation lifts its final virus restriction