Morning Alert   -   Monday, June 8, 2020
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Morning news

NHK, NTV, TBS gave top play to reports that 6 of the 14 new COVID-19 cases in Tokyo on Sunday were connected to entertainment establishments, saying that Tokyo Governor Koike and Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Nishimura have decided to urge people working at nightclubs and similar establishments to regularly undergo PCR testing. TV Asahi led with a report that the number of people out and about in Shinjuku and Ginza on Sunday rose to about 70% of the number before the coronavirus outbreak. Fuji TV gave top coverage to a report on record rainfall in some parts of the Tokyo metropolitan area on Saturday.

Front-page items in national papers included a report on COVID-19 cluster infections at hospitals, rallies held over the weekend in the U.S. and around the world to protest the death of an African-American man in Minneapolis police custody, the results of public opinion polls pointing to a drop in public support for the Abe administration, and growing moves among Japanese companies to make teleworking a regular practice.


Infection routes untraceable for over half of new COVID-19 cases in past two weeks

Monday’s Yomiuri led with an analysis of the COVID-19 cases detected following the lifting of the state of emergency, finding that health authorities have been unable to identify the routes of infections for 55% of the 538 new cases nationwide in the past two weeks. Some 44% of the total were those under the age of 39, with the number of those in their 20s amounting to 108. While the bulk of new cases have been confirmed in Tokyo and Kitakyushu City, the daily noted that the GOJ is cautious about reinstating the state of emergency out of fear that it would have adverse effects on the economy.

In a related development, all national papers reported that Tokyo Governor Koike held talks with Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Nishimura on Sunday to discuss the recent increase in new coronavirus cases among young people in nightlife districts in the nation’s capital. The two politicians reportedly agreed to urge people working at nightclubs and other nightlife establishments to get tested for the virus regularly and to offer health consultation services for such workers.

COVID-19 clusters confirmed at 93 hospitals nationwide

Sunday’s Yomiuri reported that according to the Health Ministry, COVID-19 cluster infections have occurred at 93 hospitals and clinics across Japan. The paper noted that healthcare workers at these facilities had been forced to work for long hours in environments characterized by the “Three Cs – closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings,” and that insufficient disinfection and other failures to abide by prevention protocols were the primary causes for the virus spreading among nurses and other healthcare workers.

Monday’s Mainichi claimed that cluster infections have apparently taken place at 99 hospitals in 21 prefectures nationwide, noting that at least 2,105 people have been infected, including 1,013 healthcare workers. Out of the 1,028 inpatients who have tested positive, 205 people have died of COVID-19.

Avigan unlikely to be approved anytime soon

Sunday’s Nikkei front-paged a finding that clinical trials of the flu drug Avigan for coronavirus treatment will probably continue beyond July because of the lack of patients to take part in the trial. According to the daily, the drug manufacturer Fujifilm launched the trials in March with the goal of collecting data from a total of 96 patients. However, the firm has thus far gathered data from only about 70 patients. As the number of COVID-19 patients has plunged recently, the company has run into difficulties recruiting new subjects. As a result, the daily predicted that Avigan’s approval for COVID-19 treatment may be delayed until the summer or later.

Health minister offers projection for introduction of COVID-19 vaccine

Saturday’s Asahi took up remarks made on Friday by Heath Minister Kato, who projected that the GOJ will roll out a system in the first half of next year to start administering a COVID-19 vaccine to Japanese people. The ministry has reportedly earmarked some 138 billion yen ($1.2 billion) for launching production of a vaccine, although the prospects for development remain elusive.

Japan, Australia to begin talks on resuming travel between their countries

Saturday’s Nikkei reported that Foreign Minister Motegi and his Australian counterpart Payne held a teleconference on Friday and agreed to expedite discussions on reopening their borders to visitors from their respective nations.

In a related story, today’s Asahi wrote that most public health experts are taking an extremely cautious stance on reopening the border at this stage out of concern that it might trigger a new outbreak. They have reportedly agreed that the massive spread of infection starting in late March was triggered by virus carriers who returned or visited from Europe and other foreign countries. Border control authorities at ports of entry are also reportedly urging the GOJ to deploy more personnel to screen foreign travelers through PCR testing.

GOJ to produce rough minutes of coronavirus panel meetings

All national papers reported today on press remarks made on Sunday by Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Nishimura regarding the absence of minutes of the GOJ coronavirus taskforce subcommittee meetings attended by infectious disease experts. The cabinet member said outlines of the remarks made by individual participants in future meetings will be provided from now on. However, he dismissed mounting calls for releasing detailed records of the past 15 sessions on the grounds that the attendees gathered based on the premise that their specific remarks would not be disclosed.

MOFA raises travel warning for Cuba and 17 other countries

All national dailies wrote that MOFA raised the level of its travel advisory on Friday for Cuba, Jamaica, Iraq, and 15 other nations on account of the spread of the novel coronavirus there. Japanese citizens are now advised to avoid travel to those nations.

Only 10% of colleges in Japan currently conducting all in-person classes

Sunday’s Mainichi took up Education Ministry data showing that only about 10% of the nation’s 1,069 universities and junior colleges were holding classes exclusively in an in-person format as of June 1 despite the complete lifting of the state of emergency over the coronavirus. Approximately 60% were only conducting online classes, while the rest were offering a combination. The daily explained that most of Japan’s institutions of higher education are hesitant to resume in-person classes at least for now out of fear of potentially triggering cluster infections on campus. A college in Kyoto was heavily criticized in March when several of its students contracted the disease after traveling to Europe. The article voiced concern that some students have begun to feel lonely and have lost their motivation for learning due to prolonged online classes.

Poll shows more support for GOJ’s response to pandemic

Yomiuri front-paged the results of its latest poll that put support for the Abe administration’s handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak at 42%, up eight points from four weeks ago, and nonsupport at 49%, down nine points. However, almost 64% voiced dissatisfaction with the GOJ’s economic relief package centering on cash handouts of 100,000 yen for individuals and 2 million yen for small businesses. Only 27% felt otherwise. Cabinet approval was 40%, down 2 points, while disapproval amounted to 50%, up two points.

Nikkei’s survey found a similar trend. Some 46% approved of the GOJ’s response to the outbreak, up eight points from a month ago, while the same percentage disapproved of it, down nine points. Support for the cabinet dropped 11 points to 38%, whereas nonsupport rose nine points to 51%.


Father of North Korea abduction victim Megumi Yokota dies

The Saturday editions of all national papers gave prominent front- and inside-coverage to the death on Friday of the father of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted by North Korean agents in 1977. Shigeru Yokota died of natural causes at the age of 87. The papers lamented that he was unable to be reunited with his daughter despite his decades-long crusade to bring her and the other Japanese victims back from North Korea. He led the association representing the families of the abductees from its launch in March 1997 to November 2007, having crisscrossed Japan numerous times together with his wife Sakie to call for public support for his cause. He had been hospitalized for the past few years due to illness. Prime Minister Abe expressed profound sorrow over Yokota’s death by saying: “It is gut-wrenching and truly regrettable that we have not been able to achieve the homecoming of Megumi and the other abductees…. We must act boldly to seize every opportunity to realize their return.”

The dailies said the premier views the abduction issue as one of his administration’s signature policy items and has sought North Korea’s concessions through a “carrot and stick” approach. While the Japanese leader has apparently shelved the pressure approach in the past several years in line with President Trump’s overtures toward DPRK leader Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang has ignored the prime minister’s repeated calls for dialogue “without preconditions.” Sankei predicted that Japan’s diplomacy toward North Korea will make little progress due in part to the prolonged suspension of U.S.-DPRK dialogue.

According to Sankei, an unnamed State Department official released a statement on Friday expressing condolences over Yokota’s death. “We honor him for his work and call upon Pyongyang to release all abductees,” the official was quoted as saying. “The United States continues to urge North Korea to promptly resolve” the abduction issue.

Japan lobbying G7 members to release statement on Hong Kong

Monday’s Yomiuri claimed that according to multiple MOFA sources, the GOJ is proposing to the other G7 member states that their foreign ministers issue a joint statement expressing concern about China’s enactment of a national security law for Hong Kong. The envisaged statement will reportedly urge Beijing to cancel the legislation and maintain the “one nation, two systems" principle so that the semi-autonomous region can continue to prosper under a democratic system. The daily added that it is still uncertain whether a G7 consensus can be forged as Italy has deepened its relations with Beijing lately.

Japan gives up on inviting Chinese leader to visit this year

Saturday’s Nikkei and Sankei claimed that the Abe administration has decided not to invite Chinese leader Xi to Japan as a state guest this year amid growing conflict between the U.S and China over the national security law for Hong Kong and the coronavirus pandemic as well as mounting opposition within the ruling LDP on account of China’s continued maritime activities around the Senkakus. According to Nikkei, Foreign Minister Motegi said on a TV program on Thursday that the current situation does not warrant bilateral discussion on the timing for Xi’s trip, suggesting that Xi and Prime Minister Abe may hold talks on the margins of the G20 summit in November.

While quoting an unnamed senior GOJ official as saying: “Mr. Xi will not be able to come, and he will not come,” Sankei claimed that it is also highly likely that the Chinese leader will visit next year. The daily projected that Tokyo will probably maintain a low profile in conducting diplomacy toward Beijing in the face of strong international criticism of its response to the pandemic and enactment of the controversial security legislation for Hong Kong.

South Korea conducts military training near Liancourt Rocks

Saturday’s Asahi, Yomiuri, and Mainichi took up an announcement made by the ROK Defense Ministry on Friday that its Navy and Air Force carried out joint training to “defend territory” in the vicinity of the Liancourt Rocks (known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea) on June 2. The GOJ reportedly lodged a protest against the drills in “Japan’s inherent territory.”

India, Australia to deepen security coordination with Japan, U.S.

Saturday’s Nikkei highlighted growing security cooperation between India and Australia, noting that their prime ministers held a videoconference on Thursday and agreed to elevate the bilateral strategic partnership to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” The two leaders reportedly forged a consensus for concluding a pact to enhance military interoperability. Noting that both countries are having difficulty managing their relations with China with regard to territory and trade, the daily said Canberra and New Delhi are willing to partner with Japan and the U.S. to promote the establishment of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.


Okinawa ruling parties maintain majority
NHK reported this morning that Okinawa’s local ruling parties supporting Governor Tamaki maintained their majority in the prefectural assembly election on Sunday. Governor Tamaki reportedly pledged to continue aiming to block the GOJ’s plan to relocate MCAS Futenma to Henoko, Nago. According to the network, 68 candidates vied for the 48 seats up for grabs. Local parties backing the governor, including the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, won a majority of 25 seats, while the opposition LDP and other parties ended up with 23 seats. The network said, however, that since the ruling camp's majority is slim, the jockeying for power among the ruling and opposition parties may intensify. Governor Tamaki reportedly told the press that he will steadfastly maintain his opposition to the Futenma relocation plan as it is one of his campaign promises. However, the network said a senior MOD official believes that the slim majority could affect how the Okinawa governor opposes the relocation plan to some extent. The network added that the central government maintains that the current relocation plan is the only viable solution and is set to continue implementing the Futenma relocation plan while working to gain local understanding.

U.S. pressured Japan to give up on developing new fighter jointly with UK

Sunday’s Asahi published prominent reports on Japan’s informal decision to develop a new ASDF fighter jet with the U.S., asserting that Tokyo had been pressured by Washington to abandon its initial idea of teaming up with the UK. The daily reportedly obtained a copy of a Defense Ministry document on the successor to the aging F-2s sent to some ten local defense contractors in March. It reportedly read in part: “The new fighter will fulfill an obligation of the U.S.-Japan alliance and possess interoperability with the U.S. military….. We have concluded that it is appropriate for the two nations’ enterprises to hold discussions under the auspices of the U.S. and the Japanese governments.” According to the daily, the document mentioned Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Boeing, and nine other U.S. and Japanese firms that will form a bilateral consultative body with the governments to discuss production costs, schedules, and other details. Although an MOD source reportedly said the launch of the panel does not necessarily mean that Japan has officially selected the U.S. as a partner, the daily claimed that the document represents Tokyo’s commitment to developing the new fighter with Washington.

The paper also asserted that a number of incumbent and former USG officials pressured Abe administration officials not to select the UK as a partner by saying that doing so would undermine bilateral defense operations and “trigger a strong reaction from President Trump.” The Kantei reportedly succumbed to U.S. pressure first, telling the Defense Ministry: “What is important is the U.S.-Japan alliance. There is no option other than to partner with the U.S.”

In a separate piece, Asahi detailed Japan’s “binge buying” of U.S. defense hardware under the Trump administration, expressing apprehension that “excessive reliance” on American defense equipment will undermine the foundation of the domestic defense industry and forestall the nation’s development of and investment in advanced technology. The paper also noted that such heavy dependence on American equipment might also strip Japan of flexibility in its defense policy, with an unnamed high-ranking MOD official reportedly saying: “We might receive a warning from the United States telling us to send Japanese troops to the Middle East or they won’t provide weapons and components or disclose the source codes that control the weapons systems.”


U.S. Embassy official speaks on energy plant exports, nuclear fuel recycling, oil market

Nikkei, Kyodo, and Jiji reported on Saturday on an online media roundtable featuring U.S. Embassy Energy Attaché Ross Matzkin that took place on Friday. Nikkei focused on the official’s remarks expressing concern that many countries have tapped Chinese and Russian technology and expertise for their new nuclear power plants. Matzkin reportedly said the U.S. will promote “small module reactors” for foreign customers in a bid to restore U.S. leadership on the nuclear energy front. Kyodo took up Matzkin’s comment on Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling policy in which he said that U.S. does not adopt such a policy since it is very costly and incompatible with nuclear nonproliferation. According to Jiji, Matzkin projected that the global petroleum market will see a “robust recovery” in the latter half of this year, adding that the coronavirus pandemic has had little impact on exports of U.S. oil products to the Asia-Pacific region.

Foreign casino operators cautious about doing business in Japan amid pandemic

Today’s Asahi wrote that some foreign casino operators have begun losing interest in entering the Japanese market as they have been hit hard by the worldwide outbreak of the novel coronavirus. MGM Resorts International has reportedly hinted at the possibility of delaying the submission of its business outlook report concerning its bid to open a gambling facility in Osaka, while Las Vegas Sands has already given up on its quest to obtain a casino license in Yokohama. The CEO of Hong Kong-based Galaxy Entertainment Group, which has been aiming to open an integrated resort in Yokohama, noted that the pandemic will have adverse effects on the gambling and tourism industries for years to come. The daily projected that as a result, many local governments may not be able to present sustainable IR business plans.

Japan, UK to start FTA talks on June 9

Nikkei and Mainichi wrote on Sunday that Foreign Minister Motegi plans to hold a videoconference with the UK trade minister on June 9 to launch talks on a bilateral free trade accord, which will be based on the existing Japan-EU EPA. The two sides are aiming to conclude by December a free trade deal, which London is reportedly looking to use as a steppingstone to joining the CPTPP in the future.


Bomb threats issued for schools in Tokyo

Sankei reported online on Sunday evening that the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education had received emails suggesting that bombs had been placed in schools in the Shibuya and Setagaya districts of Tokyo. The Shibuya Police Station is currently investigating the matter on suspicion of forcible obstruction of business. According to the report, the station was notified by the Shibuya Ward Office on June 5 that it had received an email saying that bombs set to go off at 10:30 a.m. on June 8 had been placed in 30 schools in the Shibuya district. The Setagaya Ward Office reportedly received a similar email. According to the daily, no bombs have been found and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police are increasing their vigilance around the schools. Fuji TV carried a similar story adding that the Tokyo Metropolitan University and Dentsu headquarters building had also received bomb threats.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team