Morning Alert   -   Thursday, May 7, 2020
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Morning news

NHK gave top coverage to a report that today marks one month since the state of emergency was first declared for seven prefectures, saying that the GOJ is expected to call on the 13 prefectures designated as areas for which special attention is warranted to continue aiming to reduce the number of commuters by 70% even after the Golden Week holidays. NTV led with a report that Tokyo confirmed 38 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, saying that although the number was below 100 for four consecutive days, the average for the last seven days was still high at 91.9. TBS gave top play to a report that Prime Minister Abe said on an online program that around May 14 the GOJ’s advisory panel of medical experts will come up with a set of conditions for lifting the state of emergency.  Fuji TV led with a report that TV Asahi announcer Tamao Akae, who was admitted to the hospital last month after testing positive for COVID-19, was discharged on May 4. TV Asahi reported that there were very few people at tourist spots, train stations and airports across Japan on Wednesday, the last day of the Golden Week holidays.

No papers were published this morning due to a press holiday.


GOJ extends nationwide state of emergency through May 31

All national dailies wrote on Tuesday that the GOJ officially decided during a meeting of its coronavirus taskforce headquarters on Monday to extend the nationwide state of emergency through May 31 in view of the continuing spread of the new coronavirus. At a news conference held after the meeting, Prime Minister Abe said that although the number of new COVID-19 cases per day is declining, it has not dropped enough and another month will be needed to shore up the medical system. Abe added that the GOJ will seek to reduce the number of new cases per day across the nation to less than 100 before lifting the state of emergency.

Abe stated that although the extended state of emergency covers the entire country, some prefectures may be able to lift it before the end of this month depending on their individual situations. He said an advisory panel of medical experts will make a fresh assessment around May 14. Economic Revitalization Minister Nishimura said during a videoconference with business leaders and prefectural governors on Tuesday that the GOJ will listen to experts’ opinions on May 21 as well as on May 14 to consider whether to lift the state of emergency. While supporting the GOJ’s decision to extend the state of emergency, the business leaders called on the government to present specific numerical targets for lifting restrictions on economic activities.

The GOJ will continue to ask people in the 13 prefectures designated as areas that warrant special attention to stay home as much as possible to reduce social contact by 80%. However, parks, libraries, and museums may be permitted to reopen if they take measures to prevent infection. The 34 other prefectures also might be able to relax some of their current restrictions on social and economic activities.

The papers expressed the view that although the GOJ is trying to strike a balance between stemming the spread of the virus and normalizing economic activities, it has yet to come up with a clear “exit strategy.”

Prefectural governors react to extension of state of emergency

All national dailies wrote on Wednesday that prefectural governors across Japan are responding in various ways to the central government’s extension of the nationwide state of emergency through May 31. Tokyo Governor Koike said on Tuesday that Tokyo will ask restaurants and other establishments to continue to stay closed or shorten their business hours through May 31. The governor also called on business owners and companies to maintain social distancing and urged people not to participate in crowded events.

Osaka Governor Yoshimura announced that Osaka has established an “Osaka model” for gradually lifting restrictions on economic activities, stressing that a clear target for easing restrictions is needed. Yoshimura said Osaka will continue to ask citizens to refrain from nonessential outings and organizers to suspend events unless the following three criteria are met: the number of new cases with unclear infection routes drops below 10 per day, the positive rate among people tested for the virus falls to less than 7%, and the occupancy rate of hospital beds for patients with severe symptom drops below 60%. The governor said that all these conditions will need to be met for seven consecutive days, and the prefectural government plans to determine on May 15 whether to gradually reopen businesses.

Experts’ panel proposes “new normal” for prolonged battle against coronavirus

All national dailies wrote on Tuesday that a GOJ panel of medical experts presented a set of specific actions for the “new normal” that will be necessary in fighting a prolonged battle against the coronavirus. The panel recommended that people wear masks as much as possible when going out, wash their hands and faces, and change their clothes or shower as soon as they get home. The panel also recommended that people practice social distancing, regularly check their temperature, shop online, avoid traveling in the rush hour, telework, and conduct meetings online to avoid closed, crowded, and close-contact settings.

Japan may approve remdesivir for COVID-19 treatment this week

Tuesday’s Yomiuri, Mainichi, and Nikkei wrote that U.S. pharmaceutical firm Gilead Sciences said on Monday that it has filed an application with the Japanese health ministry for the use of its anti-viral drug remdesivir for coronavirus treatment. The papers wrote that the ministry is planning to approve the drug within a week through a fast-track approval process. Wednesday’s Yomiuri wrote that Health Minister Kato said on a TV program on Tuesday that his ministry plans to approve remdesivir on Thursday. Kato reportedly said that the ministry will approve the drug quickly if it receives the endorsement of the Pharmaceutical Affairs and Food Sanitation Council. Asahi wrote that the Health Ministry is planning to control the distribution of remdesivir for the time being to preferentially provide the drug to medical institutions treating patients in serious condition.

In a related development, the papers wrote that Prime Minister Abe told the press on Monday that the GOJ intends to approve the use of the anti-flu drug Avigan for COVID-19 treatment by the end of this month.

Japan’s supply of remdesivir for COVID-19 may be limited

Saturday’s Nikkei wrote that it learned from a Health Ministry source that it will probably be difficult for Japan to receive a stable supply of remdesivir to treat all of the coronavirus patients in Japan who need it because although Gilead Sciences is planning to distribute enough for 140,000 patients worldwide, Japan will probably receive only a small portion of the supply. The paper wrote that although the Health Ministry is prepared to approve remdesivir immediately after it is approved overseas, treatment using the drug is unlikely to be covered by the national insurance program until the establishment of a system to provide a sufficient supply for all patients who need it.

Experts’ panel acknowledges insufficiency of Japan’s PCR testing

Tuesday’s Yomiuri, Asahi, and Nikkei wrote that a GOJ panel of medical experts released a report on Monday concluding that Japan’s PCR testing for the new coronavirus has been insufficient by international standards. The papers wrote that Japan has conducted 187.8 tests per 100,000 people, while Italy has done 3,159 tests and the United States has done 1,752.3 tests per 100,000 people. The panel said that the dearth of tests stems from such factors as the excessive burden on local health offices that give guidance to potential coronavirus patients before testing and staff shortages at public health institutes that conduct the testing. The panel recommended expanding regional outpatient treatment and screening centers, ensuring a secure supply of protective gear, and training more staff to collect samples. Nikkei wrote that Prime Minister Abe also told reporters on Monday that he recognizes that PCR testing has been inadequate in Japan because personnel-related bottlenecks have hindered the expansion of PCR testing.

Increase in PCR testing holds key to reopening Japanese economy

Sunday’s Nikkei wrote that nations around the world are expanding PCR testing in preparation for reopening their economies. The paper said that although Japan has set a goal of conducting 20,000 tests per day, the nation lags far behind such countries as Germany, which aims to carry out 200,000 daily tests, and the United States, which has set a goal of 290,000. The paper argued that it will be difficult for Japan to lift the state of emergency unless it increases testing because assessing the current spread of the new coronavirus accurately will be indispensable for reopening the economy. The paper wrote that although the GOJ explains that it has set a goal of increasing the number of tests per day to 20,000 and has boosted daily testing capacity to 15,000, the actual number of tests being conducted is still only around 8,000 to 9,000 per day.


President Trump, Secretary Pompeo comment on theory that COVID-19 originated in Wuhan lab

Tuesday’s Yomiuri, Asahi, and Nikkei wrote that President Trump reportedly said in a Fox News program on Sunday that China “made a horrible mistake and tried to cover it up.” The President reportedly added that his administration will put together a report on the issue that will be “very conclusive.” Secretary of State Pompeo told ABC on Sunday that there are “enormous” signs that the novel coronavirus outbreak originated at a biomedical laboratory in Wuhan. The Secretary was quoted as telling the network: “I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.”

In a related story, Wednesday’s Yomiuri wrote that Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger has been increasing his presence in the Trump administration with his tough position on China, claiming that he advised the leadership to refer to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus.”

Abe speaks by phone with Iranian President Rouhani

All national dailies wrote on Wednesday that Prime Minister Abe and Iranian President Rouhani spoke by phone on Tuesday. The papers wrote that Abe urged Rouhani to exercise restraint by saying that stability in the region is indispensable to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Asahi speculated that Abe made the remark in view of the tension between the United States and Iran that has risen again following the announcement by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that it successfully launched a military satellite. Mainichi wrote that Abe expressed Japan’s readiness to play a role in easing tensions between Washington and Tehran.

The papers also wrote that Abe and Rouhani confirmed close cooperation in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. According to the papers, Abe told the Iranian president that Japan will provide the flu drug and potential coronavirus treatment Avigan free of charge to Iran and has decided to provide medical assistance worth 2.5 billion yen ($23 million) to the country through international organizations.

U.S., Japanese officials discuss North Korea

Wednesday’s Yomiuri wrote that National Security Secretariat Secretary General Kitamura spoke by phone with National Security Adviser O’Brien on Tuesday, speculating that the two officials discussed the situation in North Korea and confirmed close cooperation between the United States and Japan. The paper speculated that the two officials also discussed how to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak and confirmed cooperation in developing treatments and assisting developing nations.

U.S. shares intelligence on Kim Jong Un with Seoul and Tokyo

Nikkei Asian Review reported on Wednesday that a senior U.S. State Department official said on Tuesday that the U.S. has been sharing information with Japan and South Korea on the recent disappearance of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un from public view. “Anytime there are issues on the [Korean] Peninsula, as we saw recently, the first governments we speak with are South Korea and Japan,” Marc Knapper, deputy assistant secretary for Korea and Japan, said in regards to Kim’s nearly three-week absence in an online discussion hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies. The media outlet wrote that Knapper’s remarks are believed to be meant to brush aside concerns among national security officials that South Korea’s move last year to abandon its military-intelligence sharing pact with Japan could hamper efforts to deal with Pyongyang’s provocations. Regarding the stalled bilateral talks with North Korea, Knapper said: “We remain open to diplomacy regardless of whatever conclusions Pyongyang may have drawn. The door to diplomacy remains open.”

Japan objects to Russia celebrating end of WWII on anniversary of victory against Japan

Monday’s Sankei wrote that the GOJ has told Moscow that the decision to shift Russia’s day to celebrate the end of WWII from September 2 to September 3, the anniversary of its victory against Japan, is not “favorable” to Japan. The paper speculated that the change is intended to justify Moscow’s seizure of the Northern Territories and that the move could have a negative impact on future negotiations on the Northern Territories.

Japan pledges $834 million for international initiative on vaccine development

Wednesday’s Mainichi and Nikkei wrote that Japan and some 40 countries and donors held an online meeting hosted by the EU on Monday. Along with the European Commission, the conference was co-hosted by Japan, the UK, Canada, and Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Abe delivered a video message to the conference in which he announced Japan’s pledge to donate about $834 million to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a global alliance financing and coordinating the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases. The papers wrote that although the conference was intended to demonstrate the importance of international cooperation, the United States did not participate.

Japan helps South Korean girl with acute leukemia to return home from India

NHK reported this morning that a five-year-old South Korean girl who was diagnosed with acute leukemia in India and was unable to return home due to travel restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic safely returned to South Korea on May 5 thanks to the help of the Japanese government. According to the network, the South Korean Embassy in India had been calling on nations for help, and the Japanese government decided to respond by securing seats for the girl and her family on a flight that was arranged to bring Japanese citizens in India home. The girl reportedly returned to South Korea via Japan. The network said local media are describing her return on the May 5 Children's Day holiday in South Korea as "a miracle."


Defense Secretary Esper says coronavirus has had “very low impact” on U.S. military

Kyodo News reported on Tuesday that Defense Secretary Esper said at an online think tank event on Monday that the coronavirus pandemic has only had a “very low impact” on the U.S. military and that its “fight-tonight” status remains intact on the Korean Peninsula. He warned, however, that there could be a “greater impact” over time, such as in terms of training, if the virus shows no signs of ebbing. Secretary Esper said that of the country’s 2 million-strong military, fewer than 5,000 people have been infected with the coronavirus and fewer than 100 have been hospitalized. Out of more than 90 military vessels at sea, only two have been affected – the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and the destroyer Kidd. Secretary Esper also warned that China’s activity is ticking up in the South China Sea, citing the reported sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese Coast Guard ship in April. “The Chinese have been a little bit more provocative in that part of the world,” the Secretary said, adding that the United States is closely watching China’s activities in the disputed waters.

GOJ paid 30 billion yen for Henoko landfill despite suspension due to design changes

Saturday’s Asahi wrote that the Ministry of Defense has canceled all of its contracts concluded with construction companies between November 2014 and March 2015 for landfill work to construct the Futenma Replacement Facility at Henoko because design changes became necessary due to the soft seabed in Oura Bay. The paper wrote that although five of the six projects had not yet begun, the ministry paid a total of 30.2 billion yen ($282.24 million), or about 70%, of the total cost of the six contracts, even though they were all terminated in February and March this year. The paper wrote that a ministry official defended the payment by saying that it was not wasteful because work that was necessary to proceed with the entire project was completed and the payments were made on the basis of the amount of work that had been finished.

U.S. military conducts additional sampling of soil following PFOS spill at Futenma

Saturday’s Asahi wrote that the U.S. military responded on Friday to a request from the Defense Ministry and other Japanese authorities to conduct a soil sampling survey following the leakage of foam extinguisher containing PFOS from MCAS Futenma. According to the ministry, the U.S. side took soil samples in five locations following the removal on April 24 of soil from an area near a hangar at the base where the foam extinguisher had leaked. This time the samples were taken in the presence of officials of the GOJ, the Okinawa Prefectural Government, and Ginowan City Government, and some of the samples were provided to the central and prefectural governments. The paper wrote, however, that the U.S. military still has not heeded the prefectural and municipality governments’ request for samples of the soil that was previously removed from the leakage site. A prefectural government official who observed the sampling work told reporters that some progress has been made because soil samples were provided to the prefectural government this time, but that they will continue to call on the U.S. side to provide samples of the soil that was removed previously.

GOJ gives up on deploying Aegis Ashore system at Araya training site in Akita

Wednesday’s Yomiuri front-paged a report saying that it has learned from multiple GOJ sources that the GOJ will likely give up on the idea of deploying the Aegis Ashore missile defense system at the GSDF’s Araya training site in Akita due to strong opposition from the local community. The paper wrote that although the GOJ is planning to find an alternative site within the prefecture, its original plan to begin operating the system in fiscal 2025 will likely be delayed.


TPP nations to cooperate in maintaining supply chains

The Saturday edition of Nikkei wrote that the TPP member states are stepping up their cooperation in maintaining supply chains to resist the tide of protectionism by promoting trade and technical cooperation based on the TPP framework, as restrictions on agriculture and other exports are growing in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The paper wrote that Singapore and New Zealand have agreed to promote trade of pharmaceuticals and food, saying that the two nations have launched a new trade initiative to remove tariffs and other trade barriers on goods deemed essential to combat the pandemic, mainly medical supplies such as gloves, disinfectant, and medication along with dairy products, meat, and other food items. On Friday, five nations including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand agreed to set common guidelines for essential cross-border travel to minimize trouble with customs procedures. The paper wrote that the 11 TPP members, including Japan, are strengthening their cooperation through multiple international frameworks to counter the growing protectionist trend around the world, noting that Russia, the world’s largest exporter of wheat, has adopted a quota system for its export of grains and Cambodia has halted overseas shipments of rice and Thailand has banned the export of egg.


Abe renews call for constitutional revision

Monday’s Asahi led with a report on a video message Prime Minister Abe sent to a meeting on Sunday of a group of people seeking constitutional revision as president of the ruling LDP. In the nine-minute video message, Abe stressed the need to revise the Constitution in responding to the coronavirus crisis to allow authorities to enforce requests to the public to refrain from certain actions based on the special measures law. He also mentioned the need to clearly state the constitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces in Article 9. The paper wrote that although Abe has expressed his strong resolve to achieve constitutional revision during his term as LDP chief until the fall of 2021, a senior LDP official said he is afraid that Abe’s remarks will be seen as a move to capitalize on the coronavirus crisis. The paper speculated that Abe is advocating constitutional revision in a bid to prevent his grip on power from weakening. Monday’s Sankei also reported on Abe’s video message.

Public divided over need for constitutional revision

Sunday’s Yomiuri, Asahi, and Mainichi reported on the results of their respective nationwide public opinion surveys on constitutional revision that were conducted from early March through mid-April by mail. Yomiuri wrote that the public was divided over whether the Constitution should be revised, with 49% of the respondents in favor and 48% against. Asked what they are particularly interested in when it comes to constitutional revision, the respondents selected the renunciation of war and the Self-Defense Forces as the top issues at 51%, followed by response to emergency situations and the environment at 38%. Multiple responses were allowed.

A poll by Asahi showed similar results, with 43% saying the Constitution needs to be revised, while 46% said otherwise. Asked their views about the war-renouncing Article 9, 65% said the article should be upheld as is, while 27% responded it should be changed. Noting that 72% said that Diet discussions on constitutional amendment do not need to be rushed, the paper wrote that momentum for constitutional amendment is not growing among the public despite Prime Minister Abe’s stressing the need for expediting debate.

Mainichi wrote that 46% of the respondents expressed opposition to the idea of Prime Minister Abe revising the Constitution before his term comes to an end, while 36% supported it. Some 34% supported the idea of explicitly stating the existence of the SDF in the Constitution, while 24% opposed it.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team