Morning Alert   -   Monday, May 11, 2020
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Morning news

NHK, NTV, and TV Asahi led with reports that the GOJ may decide to lift the state of emergency for 34 prefectures ahead of May 31. Fuji TV gave top play to a report that Tokyo confirmed 22 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday. TBS led with a report that 11 of the 15 pachinko parlors that were singled out by the Tokyo government on Saturday for not complying with its request to suspend operations were still open yesterday.

Top stories in national dailies included the likelihood that the GOJ will lift the state of emergency for 34 prefectures (Yomiuri), the GOJ’s failure to anticipate the need for large-scale PCR testing in its 2013 action plan against new infectious diseases (Mainichi); efforts by companies worldwide to increase liquidity amid the coronavirus outbreak (Nikkei); an interview with political scientist Ian Bremmer where he discussed the deepening rift between the United States and China (Sankei); and China’s attempt to seek “digital hegemony” in Africa and elsewhere in the world (Asahi).


GOJ may lift state of emergency for 34 prefectures before May 31

All national dailies wrote on Monday that multiple GOJ sources have told them that the GOJ is making final arrangements to lift the nationwide state of emergency over the coronavirus outbreak before the planned end date of May 31 in many of the 34 prefectures that are not designated as areas that warrant special attention if they meet certain conditions such as fewer cases and sufficient medical and monitoring systems. The GOJ will decide on May 14 on whether to lift the emergency declaration after hearing the opinions of a government panel of experts. Economic Revitalization Minister Nishimura said at a news conference on Sunday that the GOJ is eyeing lifting the state of emergency in many of the 34 prefectures that are not designated as areas that warrant special attention. He added the state of emergency could also be lifted in the 13 prefectures that do warrant special attention if they meet the government-set conditions. Yomiuri wrote, however, that the GOJ considers it to be too early to lift the emergency declaration for Tokyo and Osaka because although the curve is flattening in terms of the number of new cases, a number of new cases are still occurring.

GOJ eases guidelines for COVID-19 consultations

The Saturday editions of all national papers reported that the MHLW revised on Friday its guidelines for when people experiencing possible COVID-19 symptoms should consult with their local public health centers to check whether they need to undergo PCR diagnostic testing. Under the new criteria, people are advised to get in touch with their public health authorities or doctors immediately if they experience such symptoms as shortness of breath, fatigue, cough, or high fever. People with milder symptoms are also strongly encouraged to contact their doctors if such symptoms persist for several days.

The ministry removed from the guidelines an item saying that people should only consult a doctor if they have had a fever of 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 ° F) or higher for four or more days. The original guidelines adopted in mid-February were meant to avoid a situation in which people with minor symptoms rushed to hospitals to get tested. However, since there have been cases in which patients have died after initially showing only minor symptoms, there has been a surge in public criticism that the guidelines have discouraged people from seeking medical attention or PCR testing.

Tokyo discloses positive test rate for COVID-19

According to the Saturday editions of all national dailies, the Tokyo metropolitan government (TMG) disclosed on Friday for the first time the ratio of people who tested positive for the novel coronavirus compared with the number of those who underwent PCR testing. The average rate for the week that began on May 1 was 7.5%. According the TMG, the corresponding figure in mid-April was slightly over 30%. Nikkei noted that according to the Health Ministry, Tokyo’s overall positive rate through May 6 was 37.1%, which is higher than that of New York City, where an exponential surge in cases occurred. Meanwhile, Yomiuri took up a separate TMG announcement on Friday that the PCR testing capacity in its jurisdiction has now increased to 3,000 tests per day.    

Only 14,486 beds secured for COVID-19 patients nationwide, far below target of 50,000

Monday’s Nikkei wrote that the MHLW announced on Sunday that 14,486 beds have been secured for treating COVID-19 patients in hospitals nationwide. The paper wrote that although the GOJ set a target of 50,000 beds at its taskforce meeting on April 6, less than 30% of the target figure has been achieved. The paper added that although Tokyo has secured 2,000 beds, 1,832 of them were occupied as of April 28. Although the prefectures are expected to increase the number of beds to a total of more than 30,000 nationwide, including 4,000 in Tokyo, if the number of patients rises explosively, the ministry is uncertain whether there will be enough beds.

GOJ to create COVID-19 database covering 8,000 hospitals nationwide

Sunday’s Yomiuri gave top play to a GOJ plan to launch later this month a database aggregating various types of information on treating COVID-19 from some 8,000 hospitals across the country, such as the number of patients, availability of beds, operational status of ventilators, PCR testing capacity, and inventory of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare providers. Central government ministries and agencies and local governments will be able to access the centralized database to decide where to distribute PPE and/or to treat patients in serious condition if hospitals in the region cannot accommodate them.  Meanwhile, Mainichi reported on Sunday that nearly 2,000 hospitals across the nation have set up divisions for dealing with outpatients suspected of having the coronavirus.

Over 90% of hotel beds for COVID-19 patients remain empty

Sunday’s Mainichi led with a finding that 92% of the approximately 7,200 hotel beds that the governments of Tokyo, Osaka, Kanagawa, and four other urban prefectures have secured for accommodating coronavirus patients with minor symptoms remained unfilled as of May 7. Many such patients reportedly preferred to self-isolate at home in view of the strict restrictions on their movement and activities at hotels.

GOJ to approve antigen test kit soon

Saturday’s Nikkei, Yomiuri, and Mainichi reported that the Health Ministry plans to approve next week an antigen test kit for the novel coronavirus developed by a local manufacturer. As the kit can detect the presence of COVID-19 antigen in only about 15 minutes, it will reportedly be used to supplement the more accurate PCR diagnostic test. Sankei wrote on Sunday that the manufacturer plans to produce some 200,000 kits per week and may boost output if demand increases.  Monday’s Nikkei wrote that the Health Ministry is planning to test 400,000 people for the virus per week after approving the nation’s first antigen test kit for COVID-19 on Wednesday.

Chest CT scans play important role in diagnosing COVID-19

Sunday’s Nikkei wrote that Japanese doctors are increasingly relying on CT scans to treat COVID-19 patients amid the ongoing difficulty in increasing PCR testing capacity. Although chest CT scans are not used to diagnose COVID-19, they appear to be helpful in detecting complications, such as pneumonia, in the early stages for patients with minor symptoms. Some doctors reportedly believe that CT scans might offer a more accurate way to diagnose the new pathogen. As Japan has the world’s highest number of CT scanners per 1 million people, the daily said the equipment may play a key role in identifying COVID-19 patients.

Four out of five doctors complain about lack of protective equipment

Nikkei reported on Saturday that according to a poll taken last month by a private healthcare operator, 78% of doctors pointed to a lack of masks, gowns, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) at their hospitals, up 17 points from March. Medical practitioners at clinics reportedly complained more about PPE shortages than those at large hospitals.

Only 4% of nation’s households have received face masks from GOJ

The Saturday editions of all national dailies took up the disclosure by Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga on Friday that the GOJ has only delivered cloth masks to some 2.8 million households in Tokyo, or 4% of the households in Japan, even though Prime Minister Abe promised in early April that all households would receive such masks by the end of May. The government spokesman stressed that the delivery will be completed by the end of this month without fail, justifying the highly unpopular program on the grounds that demand for disposable masks has dropped following the delivery of the cloth “Abenomask.”          

Minister Nishimura reiterates call for people to stay home

Sunday’s Yomiuri and Sankei took up remarks made to the press on Saturday by Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Nishimura, who voiced concern about an apparent increase in the past few days in the number of people out and about in urban centers in the 13 prefectures that are designated as areas that warrant special attention. The cabinet official warned that if more people let down their guard, all the efforts they have made to stay home over the past month will have been for naught by causing a surge in the number of cases two weeks from now.

Japanese more pessimistic about pandemic than people elsewhere

Nikkei on Saturday took up the results of a public opinion survey on the novel coronavirus pandemic conducted in Japan and eight other countries by the Boston Consulting Group in April. Some 82% of Japanese respondents felt that the worst is yet to come. This number was the highest among the polled nations, with the corresponding figures for the U.S. and China at 57% and 26%, respectively, even though the death toll in Japan has been the lowest by far.

In a related story, the business daily highlighted the results of a survey of Japanese college students conducted in April by the National Federation of University Cooperative Associations in which almost 84% expressed anxiety about their career prospects because of the pandemic. Nearly 70% also voiced concern about their economic wellbeing in the near future since they have had difficulty maintaining part time jobs amid the rapid economic deceleration.


Japan to step up medical support for developing nations

Sunday’s Yomiuri reported that the GOJ plans to assist developing countries in Asia and Africa with building their capacity for combating the new coronavirus and other infectious diseases by providing local medical officials and healthcare workers with training. Noting that some 84 billion yen ($800 million) was earmarked in the FY2020 supplementary budget for public health aid programs in developing nations, the daily said Japan is keen to counter China’s “mask diplomacy.”

Seoul thanks Tokyo for helping girl with leukemia return home from India

Mainichi reported on Saturday that ROK Foreign Minister Kang sent a letter to Foreign Minister Motegi on Friday voicing appreciation for Japan’s support for transporting to Seoul via Tokyo 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 outbreak there. The GOJ reportedly secured seats for the girl and her family on a flight that was arranged to bring Japanese citizens home from India. The top ROK diplomat reportedly said in the letter that Japan’s assistance symbolized mutual cooperation in spite of difficult bilateral relations.


SDF operations overseas hamstrung by coronavirus pandemic

Sunday’s Mainichi wrote that the coronavirus outbreak has complicated the SDF’s peacekeeping missions abroad, noting that some 60 personnel currently engaged in aerial surveillance operations in the Middle East have had to stay in Djibouti beyond their original assignment of three months that was set to end in mid-April. A replacement unit reportedly cannot be deployed because the country has closed its borders to foreign visitors on account of the pandemic. Some 360 sailors aboard two MSDF destroyers engaged in similar operations in the region are also not allowed to disembark even when their ships call at ports in Gulf states for refueling. The Defense Ministry is reportedly preparing for the possibility of withdrawing these personnel from the region in the event of a novel coronavirus infection at sea.

In a related development, Monday’s Asahi and Sankei wrote that the MSDF destroyer Kirisame, with about 200 personnel aboard, left its homeport of Nagasaki on Sunday to replace the Takanami, which has been engaged in Japan’s information gathering mission in the Middle East since late February. However, the Kirisame will conduct training in Japanese waters for two weeks while testing its crew members for the coronavirus before heading for the Middle East.

Chinese patrol boats chase Japanese trawler in waters around the Senkakus

The Sunday editions of all national papers reported that four Chinese coast guard vessels intruded into Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus on Friday afternoon and two of them approached and chased a Japanese fishing boat operating in the area. The papers said two Chinese government ships entered the territorial waters again on Saturday evening. The GOJ reportedly lodged strong protests over the intrusions through several diplomatic channels.

SDF space operations unit to be launched later this month

The Saturday editions of Asahi and Mainichi highlighted an announcement by Defense Minister Kono on Friday that a 20-member “Space Operations Squadron” will be established at an ASDF base in Fuchu, Tokyo, on May 18, and that the unit will conduct space debris surveillance. “Along with cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum, outer space is an important domain for national defense,” said the minister. “The establishment of the space unit is extremely meaningful from the standpoint of placing the nation in an advantageous position in this domain at an early stage.”


Japan lists 518 companies subject to tighter foreign investment rules

Saturday morning’s Nikkei, Yomiuri, and Sankei wrote that the Finance Ministry released on Friday a list of 518 Japanese corporations, including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Toyota, Sony, and SoftBank, that will be subject to prescreening by the ministry when foreign investors plan to acquire more than 1% of their equity. The regulation is intended to prevent foreign entities from purchasing Japanese businesses that possess critical technology and expertise with national security implications in 12 industrial sectors, such as defense, aviation, utilities, and nuclear power. The ministry’s list covers 14% of the nation’s publicly traded firms. Nikkei predicted that more companies, especially those in the pharmaceutical and healthcare fields, are likely to be added to the list since safeguarding the medical sector is deemed critical for national security amid the coronavirus outbreak. Monday’s Yomiuri wrote that the GOJ has decided to add firms involved in the production of the anti-flu drug Avigan to its list of companies that will be subject to strict pre-screening for foreign investment to secure stable supplies of the drug.


Majority dissatisfied with GOJ’s response to coronavirus outbreak

Monday’s Nikkei wrote that 55% of the respondents in a nationwide telephone survey conducted by Nikkei and TV Tokyo on May 8-10 said that they do not approve of the GOJ’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. The negative rating grew by 11 percentage points from the previous poll in March, marking the highest figure since the question was first asked in February. Those satisfied with the response dropped by 9 points to 38%. Even among supporters of the Abe cabinet, 35% disapproved of the government response. Cabinet support stood at 49%, 1 point up from March, while nonsupport remained at 42%.

Monday’s Yomiuri also reported on the results of its weekend nationwide poll, in which 58%, up 19 points from a survey conducted on March 20-22, disapproved of the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, while 34%, down 19 points, approved of it. Cabinet support stood at 42%, the same as the survey conducted on April 11-12, while nonsupport was 48%, down 1 point.

Monday’s Sankei reported on the results of a telephone poll conducted by Kyodo News over the weekend. 57.5% of the respondents reportedly disapproved of the GOJ’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, while 34.1% approved. Kyodo speculated that the poll results reflected the public’s frustration over the GOJ’s repeated requests for people to stay home and for businesses to suspend operations. The approval rate for the Abe cabinet stood at 41.7%, up 1.3 points from the previous survey in mid-April, while the disapproval rate was 43.0%.


Discussions on shifting start of school year to September face difficulties

Monday’s Yomiuri wrote that the emerging view that Japan should shift the start of its school year from April to September in response to the prolonged school closure due to the coronavirus outbreak has met with many obstacles, including the need for legal amendment and coordination with preschool operations. The paper wrote that the GOJ is carefully discussing the idea and aiming to decide on a policy direction in June. The paper added that Japanese business circles welcome the idea based on the view that starting the school year in September has merits for companies that are eager to recruit students who have studied abroad.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team