Morning Alert   -   Monday, May 18, 2020
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Morning news

NHK gave top play to a report that the GOJ is expected to decide whether to lift the state of emergency for the remaining eight prefectures around May 21. NTV, Fuji TV, and TV Asahi led with reports that Tokyo confirmed five new COVID-19 cases on Sunday, while Osaka had zero new cases. TBS led with a report on the situation during the first weekend since 39 prefectures were removed from the state of emergency.

Front-page items in national papers included the growing use of telemedicine around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic, the confrontation between the U.S. and China over Taiwan’s proposed participation in the World Health Assembly set to start today, the Abe administration’s inclination to forgo its plan to enact during the current Diet session the unpopular bill designed to extend the mandatory retirement age for public prosecutors, and the alleged payment of cash by former Justice Minister Kawai and his wife Upper House member Anri to a number of prefectural and municipal assembly members in her district prior to her election last July.


GOJ to roll out large-scale antibody testing next month

The Saturday editions of all national dailies highlighted a Health Ministry plan to conduct antibody tests on 10,000 people in Tokyo, Osaka, and Miyagi prefectures in June to grasp the extent of the spread of the coronavirus. The dailies noted that experts have voiced doubts about the accuracy of some antibody test kits because many of the tests conducted in Japan and overseas have produced false positives. Sankei asserted that a positive test result should not be used to certify immunity until the accuracy of antibody testing is improved.

In a related development, the papers also reported on the results of two sets of antibody tests undertaken by the Health Ministry’s research team and a team of University of Tokyo scientists in which only 0.4 to 0.6 % of people tested positive. Public health professionals are reportedly afraid that as the findings apparently show that the spread of the virus in Japan has been limited thus far, the next wave could be much more extensive.

Tokyo to establish 44 PCR virus testing centers

Nikkei reported on Saturday that the Tokyo metropolitan government (TMG) is planning to boost its healthcare and testing capacities in preparation for a “second wave” of the coronavirus. A total of 44 PCR testing centers will be established across Tokyo by the end of this month in collaboration with a number of municipal governments and local doctors’ associations. The TMG is also expected to finance the procurement of reagents and other testing materials and training for lab technicians to boost PCR diagnostic capacities. It also plans to secure 700 additional hospital beds so that as many as 4,000 COVID-19 patients can be hospitalized throughout Tokyo.

Meanwhile, Sunday’s Nikkei front-paged Japanese pharmaceutical company Takara Bio Inc.’s decision to begin marketing in late May at the earliest PCR testing kits that use saliva samples, pending approval by the Health Ministry. As patients can collect saliva samples by themselves, the use of these kits will avoid the risk of exposing healthcare practitioners to the virus when they swab patients’ throats using the traditional testing method. The company reportedly plans to produce 2 million kits per month. The daily said these new test kits will dramatically increase the nation’s PCR testing capacity.   

1,800 additional beds secured for COVID-19 patients across Japan

Sunday’s Sankei, Yomiuri, and Nikkei reported on the Health Ministry’s announcement on Saturday that a total of 16,352 hospitals beds had been secured nationwide to treat coronavirus patients as of May 8, an increase of some 1,800 from May 1. The ministry also disclosed that as many as 31,500 beds can be made available in the future if necessary.

More people out and about over the weekend despite need for continued caution 

The Monday editions of all national papers reported that according to smartphone tracking data obtained by major telecom operators, more people were out and about in city centers and suburbs across the country over the weekend apparently because of the partial lifting of the state of emergency earlier in the week and the decline in the number of cases in urban prefectures. Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Nishimura repeatedly warned people not to let down their guard because doing so would lead to another spike in infection.

Japan looking to gradually resume business travel between neighboring countries

Saturday’s Asahi covered remarks made at the Diet on Friday by Foreign Minister Motegi. He reportedly said the ongoing ban on international travel to and from Japan may be gradually eased when the domestic coronavirus situation is brought under control. He suggested that restrictions on essential travel, such as business trips, should be relaxed first, followed by sightseeing and nonessential travel. Although China and South Korea have been proposing to Japan since March the idea of resuming business travel, the Japanese side has rejected their proposals. The paper added that PCR diagnostic testing at ports of entry must be expanded before foreign travelers can be allowed to enter again.

Meanwhile, Sunday’s Yomiuri wrote that China and South Korea have sounded out Japan on the idea of easing their respective travel regulations to allow travel to each other’s countries for business purposes if travelers obtain government-issued “COVID-19-free” certificates ahead of their departure and receive negative results in PCR testing administered by the host country at their ports of entry. Tokyo is reportedly taking a cautious approach to the proposal.

Monday’s Mainichi claimed that the GOJ is considering allowing international travel to and from about ten nations, including China, South Korea, and the U.S., in the near future. Restrictions on travel for business and research purposes will be lifted in a phased manner while taking into account the state of COVID-19 infection in those countries. 

Release of COVID-19 contact detection app to be delayed

Nikkei and Sankei wrote today that the planned rollout by the Japanese government of a smartphone app aimed at enabling users to check if they might have come into contact with someone infected with the coronavirus will be delayed until June because its development has been stalled because Google and Apple have not released detailed specifications for the basic technology of the software.

MCAS Iwakuni tells Japanese base workers not to send children to local schools

Mainichi wrote on Saturday that MCAS Iwakuni authorities have effectively told Japanese base employees and local contractors not to allow their children to attend local schools as part of the base’s own measures to prevent a coronavirus outbreak that will be in place until June 14. In response to the “base’s request,” a total of 68 students at local elementary and middle schools were not attending classes as of May 14 after the local education board reopened the schools on May 7. According to the base’s Facebook page, SOFA members may not be allowed to enter the installation if they send their children to off-base schools. Japanese base workers and contractors were reportedly urged to follow the same guidelines. A base spokesperson reportedly told Mainichi that the base has been in contact with the local education board and confirmed that the absence from school will not cause any disadvantage to the students. However, Japanese workers are reportedly worried about the prolonged absence from school possibly causing their children to fall too far behind academically.


Abe stresses need to review WHO’s handling of virus in “fair, independent manner”

Saturday’s Yomiuri and Sankei took up remarks made on an Internet program on Friday by Prime Minister Abe, in which he commented on the World Health Assembly that will begin on Monday via videoconference. He indicated that Japan will join hands with European and other partners in demanding a “fair, independent, and comprehensive examination” of the health watchdog’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We need to share information and insights on the infectious disease in a transparent and free manner,” said the premier. “There have been problems with this aspect this time.” He went on to say: “There is no question that the virus spread from China…. As China is hoping to be a major player in the international community, there is a growing likelihood that it will support” such an examination.

Sunday’s Mainichi and Sankei wrote that the GOJ and the EU are likely to submit a joint motion during the upcoming World Health Assembly calling for an independent inquiry into the organization’s initial response with the aim of increasing its operational transparency.

Meanwhile, the Saturday editions of Asahi and Yomiuri spotlighted a joint communique released on Friday following a videoconference held between the health ministers of Japan, China, and South Korea. They reportedly expressed “support for the WHO’s mission of adjusting international efforts to deal with the pandemic.” The participants also reportedly agreed to “enhance trilateral solidarity, cooperation, and mutual support” to rein in the new coronavirus.

Japan to offer coronavirus aid to developing nations

Sunday’s Nikkei front-paged a GOJ plan to extend to developing nations various types of medical support worth 100 billion yen ($930 million) to help them combat the coronavirus. The aid package will include monetary contributions through international organizations and supplies of beds, ambulances, and the flu drug Avigan.

Japanese feel closer to U.S. than China, but think both countries are important

NHK reported on the results of its survey of 3,600 Japanese people aged 18 or older from February to March, which found that while 72% of respondents said they feel close to the U.S., only 22% said they feel close to China. Meanwhile, when asked which country should be prioritized, 55% chose both, 34% selected the U.S., and 3% favored China. Keio University Professor Yasushi Watanabe, who specializes in the U.S., reportedly pointed out: “The fact that the Japanese people think that the U.S. and China are both important while they do not feel very close to China shows that they don't want to spoil Japan’s relationship with China, including economic ties. I think they have a strong desire to avoid any military tension with China.” In addition, the network said when asked who they value the most among the past U.S. presidents since the end of the WWII, 54% favored President Obama, 17% chose President Kennedy, 11% selected President Reagan, 4% chose President Clinton, and 2% picked President Trump. Wall Street Journal Tokyo bureau chief Peter Landers reportedly said: “The Japanese people probably view President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima as the first incumbent president to do so as a great achievement.”

Former Pentagon official to lead U.S.-Japan Council

Saturday’s Sankei wrote that former DOD Director for Japan Suzanne Basalla has been selected as the incoming CEO of the U.S.-Japan Council. Noting that she also served as a senior advisor to former Ambassador John Roos, the paper said that Basalla will succeed Irene Hirano, who passed away in April.

China steps up maritime advancement amid coronavirus pandemic

Sunday’s Nikkei and Sankei published prominent articles on China’s renewed maritime push in the South and East China Seas, conjecturing that Beijing is anxious to establish maritime hegemony by capitalizing on the international community’s preoccupation with the COVID-19 pandemic and the diminished presence of the U.S. Navy caused by large-scale virus outbreaks on several aircraft carriers. The dailies speculated that the Xi leadership is taking a hard line to cement its grip on power ahead of the opening of the People’s National Congress next week. The papers expressed concern that China’s high-handed diplomatic and military posturing might fuel friction with the U.S.

In a related story, Monday’s Yomiuri wrote that Defense Minister Kono has held teleconferences with his counterparts of the U.S. and seven other nations in the region lately with the goal of cementing unity among democratic nations in view of China’s continuing provocations. He was quoted as saying yesterday: “We absolutely cannot accept China’s unilateral attempts to alter the status quo by force.”


U.S., Japan to begin dialogue on economic security

Saturday’s Yomiuri reported on the disclosure by several sources involved in U.S.-Japan relations that the two governments have agreed to launch high-level dialogue on issues related to economic security, such as 5G, trade in dual-use technology, foreign investment in strategic sectors, and third-country students and scholars at U.S. and Japanese universities and research institutions. The first meeting is likely to be held later this year, with Cabinet Secretariat Councilor Fujii of the National Security Secretariat leading the Japanese delegation. The daily speculated that Washington is keen to enlist Tokyo’s support for its efforts to deter China’s pursuit of tech hegemony.

In a related development, all national papers reported over the weekend on the U.S. Commerce Department’s announcement on Friday regarding additional steps aimed at blocking the global supply of semiconductors to Huawei. Mainichi projected that Japanese and other foreign semiconductor manufacturers may lose business opportunities in China as they will be required to obtain a U.S. license before providing certain items to the Chinese tech giant if their products use American chip-making equipment.

Japan to launch fund to bring supply chains back to Japan

Sunday’s Sankei reported on a GOJ plan to establish a 200 billion-yen ($1.87 billion) fund later this month to encourage local manufacturers to bring their global supply chains back to Japan. As many Japanese businesses have suffered greatly amid the coronavirus pandemic because of prolonged disruptions of component supplies from China, where they have built extensive networks of plants, the paper noted that subsidies will be offered to domestic firms willing to build assembly lines at home.

Over 10,000 businesses likely to file for bankruptcy due to COVID-19

Saturday’s Asahi took up a forecast by a Japanese business consultancy that more than 10,000 local corporations are likely to file for bankruptcy this year because of rapid economic deceleration caused by the coronavirus outbreak. It will reportedly be the first time in seven years for the annual number of corporate failures to surpass 10,000. Teikoku Databank also projected that the tourism, restaurant, and retail industries will perhaps be hit hardest, warning of a surge in unemployment in these fields.

In a related development, all national dailies reported that more than half of publicly traded companies at the Tokyo Stock Exchange lost profit in the business year ending in March because of U.S.-China trade friction, the hike in the consumption tax last October, and the coronavirus pandemic. Three out of five firms listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange reportedly said they cannot offer projections of their business performance for the coming year due to the uncertain economic environment.

WTO chief to quit in view of U.S.-China trade war, pandemic

All national papers reported over the weekend on WTO Director-General Azevêdo’s abrupt announcement on Thursday that he will resign in late August, noting that he chose to step down as the organization’s mandate has been undermined significantly following the prolonged trade friction between the U.S. and China. Noting that many WTO members have been tempted to restrict exports of food and medical equipment amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Sankei said Japan’s initiative of reforming the WTO to ensure a global free trade system may suffer a setback due to the imminent departure of the world’s top trade official.


DOD official stresses security cooperation among U.S. partners to counter China

Saturday’s Nikkei published an op-ed by DOD Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey, in which he underscored the importance of strengthening security cooperation between the U.S. and its allies and partners in the region to ward off “revisionist ambitions” of China, thwart “nuclear desires or rogue states,” and respond to pandemic diseases.

Okinawa says it needs six months to review GOJ request for FRF design change

Saturday’s Yomiuri and Mainichi wrote that the Okinawa prefectural government told the Defense Ministry on Friday that it will take at least six months for it to study the ministry’s application for approval of the design change for the Futenma replacement facility that was submitted in April. Mainichi projected that Governor Tamaki is likely to make a final decision on the request in October or later, adding that he will likely reject it.

Pandemic stalls GOJ’s consultations with local fishing groups on SDF Ospreys in Saga

Yomiuri reported on Saturday that the coronavirus outbreak appears to be standing in the way of the Defense Ministry’s plan to obtain by the end of this year local consent for its planned deployment of 17 GSDF MV-22s at Saga Airport because scheduled meetings with local fishermen have been canceled to avoid “close contact.” Negotiations with landowners on building necessary facilities in the vicinity reportedly cannot be launched in the absence of consent from the fishing associations. The daily added that the temporary deployment of the Japanese Ospreys at GSDF Camp Kisarazu in Chiba has also been delayed on account of the virus.


More medical experts pessimistic about holding Tokyo Olympics next year

Saturday’s Mainichi reported that an increasing number of doctors, virologists, and other public health professionals are skeptical about the feasibility of holding the Tokyo Olympics next summer in view of the paramount difficulties in combating the coronavirus. While the development of a vaccine is viewed as indispensable for convening the international sports event “in its complete form” as promised by Prime Minister Abe, the daily said most experts are not optimistic about the prospects. They also suspect that if a vaccine is successfully developed quickly, making one available to athletes and people around the world in a year or so would be almost impossible. The daily added that the GOJ and the Tokyo metropolitan government have put off discussing how to finance the costs associated with the one-year postponement of the Olympics as they have been preoccupied with containing the virus outbreak.

Former Nissan executive Greg Kelly’s trial unlikely to begin soon

Sankei reported on Saturday that the trial of former Nissan executive Greg Kelly has been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, saying that the first hearing may not start until July at the earliest. Although his former boss Carlos Ghosn is “fully enjoying liberty” in Lebanon following his illegal departure from Japan in late December, the daily said the U.S. businessman’s life has not yet returned to normal since he was released from jail almost 18 months ago, according to his defense team. Mr. Kelly has reportedly been calling for the trial to start soon so he can clear his name.


GOJ not planning to shift academic year to September this year

Saturday’s Nikkei claimed in a front-page story that the GOJ and the ruling coalition have agreed not to shift the start of the school year from April to September at least this year in the absence of sufficient deliberation and budget. They are reportedly afraid of causing turmoil at schools by implementing a September start this year. However, they are still planning to accelerate discussions with the goal of changing the decades-old system in 2021 or later.


U.S. calls for bilateral pacts with nations joining lunar exploration project

Sunday’s Mainichi and Asahi reported that NASA unveiled on Friday the basic principles that foreign partners will be required to abide by when they join its Artemis lunar exploration program. The U.S. space agency reportedly called for the signing of a bilateral Artemis Accords agreement, which describes a shared vision for principles to “create a safe and transparent environment which facilitates exploration, science and commercial activities for all of humanity to enjoy.” While noting that Japan will need to sign the agreement to participate in the project, Mainichi speculated that in order to counter China’s accelerated moves to pursue crewed lunar exploration, the U.S. is hoping to conclude bilateral accords instead of multilateral agreements that would be more time consuming.


Cabinet approval declines sharply

Today’s Asahi front-paged the results of its latest public opinion survey that put support for the Abe administration at 33%, down eight points from a month ago, and nonsupport at 47%, up six points. Some 64% voiced opposition to the controversial bill aimed at raising the mandatory retirement age for public prosecutors, while 15% were in favor of it. Only three out of ten felt Prime Minister Abe has exercised leadership in combating the coronavirus, while 57% felt otherwise. Slightly over half of respondents approved of Abe’s decision to end the state of emergency for 39 prefectures.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team