Morning Alert - Tuesday, September 8, 2020
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Morning news

NHK gave top coverage to a report that two people have died and four remain missing after Typhoon Haishen hit Kyushu over the weekend. NTV and TBS also led with reports on the typhoon, while Fuji TV and TV Asahi gave top play to reports on torrential rain in Tokyo on Monday.

Main front-page items in national papers included the damage caused by Typhoon Haishen, the official start of the election campaign to choose the leader of the new largest opposition party, an update on former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn’s alleged financial wrongdoings, and the IMF’s projection for global public debt.


Suga unveils policy platform for LDP leadership election

All national papers reported on Sunday that Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga released on Saturday a package of policy goals that he will strive to achieve if he is elected as LDP president in the Sept. 15 election. Yomiuri said he is set to continue the Abe administration’s policies. He reportedly promised that the U.S.-Japan alliance would be the cornerstone of his administration’s foreign and security policy and that he would try to establish stable relationships with China and other regional neighbors. In an interview with Sankei published on Sunday, Suga commented on the possibility of Chinese leader Xi visiting Japan as a state guest. “We are currently giving top priority to dealing with the coronavirus outbreak,” he was quoted as saying: “I think we need to be cautious about starting the process of arranging his visit.” On the domestic front, Suga pledged to promote digital government, combat bureaucratic compartmentalization, and make telemedicine and remote learning permanent.

Nikkei said there is little difference between Suga and his two rivals—former Foreign Minister Kishida and former LDP Secretary General Ishiba— in terms of foreign and security policies, noting that all of them regard the U.S.-Japan alliance as the cornerstone of Japan’s foreign policy. The business daily also said the fact that the three candidates’ approaches toward Beijing are very similar shows that Japan will not be able to reduce its economic dependence on China despite the escalating tension between the U.S. and China.

Poll shows nearly half of public supports Suga

Monday’s Yomiuri front-paged the results of a public opinion poll in which some 46% of respondents preferred Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga to former Secretary General Ishiba or former Foreign Minister Kishida as the next Japanese prime minister. About 33% chose Ishiba, while 9% picked Kishida. Slightly over half said the next prime minister should continue the Abe administration’s economic policy, and 66% said he should continue its foreign and security policies. Almost three out of five said they do not have high expectations for the new opposition party to be launched through the merger of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People, while some 36% said otherwise.

The daily surmised that the public is averse to “change’ in national politics due to the coronavirus pandemic, speculating that Suga is enjoying a comfortable lead because a large majority of people appreciate the Abe administration’s achievements over the past eight years and regard the government spokesman as an apt successor to the departing premier. According to the poll, support for the Abe cabinet rose 15% from a month ago to 52%. The paper noted that such a sharp increase in popularity is unusual for an outgoing prime minister and that this reflects the voters’ appreciation of the administration’s performance. The daily said Suga and his associates are increasingly confident that he will achieve a landslide victory in view of his growing popularity. The paper also expressed the view that if Suga is elected, he might be tempted to dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap election in the near future.

Today’s Nikkei opined that if Suga wins a majority of votes in the prefectural primaries ahead of a sweeping victory in the party leadership election, his political foundation will be boosted significantly.

Speculation rife about snap election later this year

Saturday’s Sankei speculated that regardless of who wins the LDP leadership election, the new prime minister will probably be tempted to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election sooner rather than later since public support for the ruling LDP remains high. The timing is also good because the opposition bloc is in disarray, as evidenced by some politicians’ refusal to join the party resulting from the planned merger of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People. As the Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to be held next summer, the paper added that holding a snap election in the first half of 2021 would probably be difficult.

Meanwhile, during an interview with Saturday’s Mainichi, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga said the if he is elected prime minister, he will not call a snap election until the coronavirus outbreak has been brought under control.

Official campaign to select new opposition party leader begins

The Tuesday editions of all national dailies reported on the official kickoff yesterday of the campaign to elect the leader of the new opposition party to be launched next week through a merger between the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) and the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP). CDPJ leader Edano and DPFP Policy Research Committee Chairman Izumi are competing against each other for the top post. The papers said that while Edano underscores the importance of the largest opposition group being confrontational toward the ruling coalition, Izumi insists that the new party should put forward alternative policy proposals in order to show the public that it is playing a constructive role in national politics. The papers said Edano appears likely to win the election on Thursday.

In a related development, all papers reported that a total of 19 DPFP parliamentarians have decided not to join the new opposition party on account of its liberal orientation. Fourteen of them, including leader Tamaki, will launch a new party. The remaining five will not join any party for the time being.


Abe to issue statement on missile defense soon

Saturday’s Asahi front-paged the disclosure by multiple GOJ sources that Prime Minister Abe has decided to release a statement on missile defense soon. The statement is likely to say that the GOJ will conclude by year end its discussions on Japan’s capabilities to intercept enemy missiles, including whether or not to allow the SDF to possess the capability to strike enemy bases and what kind of equipment the Defense Ministry will acquire as an alternative to the aborted Aegis Ashore deployment. According to the daily, National Security Secretariat Secretary General Kitamura spoke by phone with National Security Advisor O’Brien on Friday and explained that Tokyo will formulate a new policy on missile defense by the end of this year. According to one of the sources, the GOJ is still noncommittal on the idea of the SDF possessing the capability to attack enemy bases.

Yomiuri and Sankei ran similar stories on Sunday, noting that since the statement will not require cabinet approval, it will merely encourage the next administration to promote discussions on missile defense with the goal of reaching a conclusion by year’s end. Sankei projected that the updating of the National Security Strategy planned for December will probably be postponed until next year, adding that Abe’s statement will not mention the ruling LDP’s call for the SDF to acquire “the capability to intercept ballistic missiles in enemy territory.”

MOD discovers delay in transmission of information on Aegis Ashore

The Saturday editions of all national dailies reported that Defense Minister Kono unveiled on Friday the results of the ministry’s internal investigation into the administrative process leading up to the cancellation of the Aegis Ashore procurement. Ministry bureaucrats, including the vice defense minister, reportedly did not inform the defense minister of technical problems with the rocket boosters of the interceptor missiles for almost six months even though they were aware of them by the beginning of this year. They also reportedly explained to local authorities in Akita Prefecture that the boosters could be safely guided to fall in predetermined locations without confirming with a U.S. developer whether such a guided fall was technically feasible. The defense chief said the entire process was “careless” and “not carried out in good faith,” promising to improve communications and information sharing within the ministry.

U.S. military says barbecue caused foam extinguisher leak at Futenma

Asahi and NHK reported on Saturday that according to the Defense Ministry, the U.S. military has explained that the massive leak of foam extinguisher containing perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) from MCAS Futenma in April occurred as a result of a barbecue held at a base hangar. When heat from the barbecue triggered the release of foam extinguisher inside the facility, the participants and first responders reportedly did not know how to stop it and it continued for more than 30 minutes. Due to a maintenance failure, underground storage was also unable to contain the massive volume of leaked foam. As a result, the foam flowed from the installation into a nearby river. The barbecue was reportedly organized to boost the morale of personnel who had been under quarantine due to the COVID-19 outbreak after completing overseas assignments.

Ronald Reagan crew members test positive for COVID-19

Monday’s Sankei printed a Kyodo piece on the disclosure by the U.S. Navy that several sailors aboard the USS Ronald Reagan were found to have contracted the novel coronavirus and that all of them were airlifted to a U.S. military facility in Japan. The article said they do not appear to be in serious condition because they have not been hospitalized. The Navy did not specify how many crew members tested positive or how they became infected.


COVID-19 mortality rate begins to drop

Saturday’s Nikkei wrote that the number of people dying due to the novel coronavirus has begun to decline since early September, with the seven-day rolling average on Sept. 3 being 13.43, marking the first drop in eight days. The number of patients in serious condition has also been declining from a peak on Aug. 23. The figure as of Sept. 2 was 218, down 20% from the highest level marked on Aug. 26. The peaks of both indexes during the ongoing second wave were not as high as those marked during the first wave in the spring.

According to an estimate produced by the National Institute of Infectious diseases (NIID), the COVID-19 mortality rate in August was 0.8%, as opposed to 7.2% in May. The mortality rate for people aged 70 or older was 8.1% last month, in comparison with 25.5% in May. The NIID reportedly attributed the plunge to improvements in treatment methods and the detection of a large number of patients with mild or no symptoms as a result of aggressive testing.

In a related story, Sunday’s Mainichi wrote that more than 25% of hospital beds secured for COVID-19 patients were occupied in nine prefectures as of Sept. 2, including Okinawa (56%), Fukuoka (53%), and Ishikawa (51%). In the previous week, over 25% of such beds were occupied in eleven prefectures. According to the GOJ coronavirus taskforce advisory subcommittee, the 25% occupancy rate is one of the criteria for assessing whether COVID-19 infection is picking up momentum in a given prefecture.

Japan’s new COVID-19 cases drop below 300 for first time in two months on Monday

All national papers wrote today that a total of 294 COVID-19 cases were confirmed across the country on Monday, including 77 in Tokyo. This was reportedly the first time in almost two months for the daily caseload to fall below 300 nationwide and 80 in the nation’s capital. The papers noted, however, that the Fukuoka prefectural government did not release the results of its PCR tests yesterday due to Typhoon Haishen.

Public health centers to be bypassed for advice on COVID-19 testing during flu season

All national dailies reported on Saturday that in order to avoid a “twindemic” of COVID-19 and seasonal flu this winter, the Health Ministry has decided that people experiencing fever will be able to directly consult with their neighborhood doctors online about PCR testing without checking first with local public health centers, which has been the standard procedure until now. As many people tend to experience high fever with influenza, there are strong concerns among health experts that public health centers will be overwhelmed with people seeking medical advice during the flu season since it is difficult to differentiate between COVID-19 and influenza.

UK drug maker starts clinical trial of COVID-19 vaccine in Japan

According to Saturday’s Nikkei, UK pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has launched in Japan a clinical test of its coronavirus vaccine, saying that some 250 healthy people aged 18 or over will participate in the two-stage trial conducted at several hospitals. The drug manufacturer is reportedly aiming to supply 30 million doses of its COVID 19 vaccine to the Japanese market by next March.

Athletes might be exempted from two-week quarantine for Tokyo Olympics

The Saturday editions of all national papers reported that the GOJ, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee are considering waiving the mandatory two-week quarantine for foreign Olympic and Paralympic athletes when they arrive in Japan next summer for the Olympic Games. They may instead be asked to undergo PCR tests regularly while in Japan and not visit places other than the Olympic Village, designated hotels, and event and practice venues. They will reportedly be barred from competing if they fail to obey the proposed rules.

In a related story, Tuesday’s Asahi took up remarks made on a TV show on Sunday by former Minister for Tokyo Olympics Suzuki, who said the Olympics can be held in Tokyo next year as scheduled even if a dozen or more countries are unable to participate on account of the coronavirus pandemic. He explained that both the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were convened despite boycotts by more than a dozen nations.


U.S. court approves extradition of Americans accused of aiding Ghosn’s escape

The Saturday evening editions of all national papers reported that a federal district court in Massachusetts concluded on Friday that a former Green Beret and his son who have been accused of smuggling former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn out of Japan can be extradited to Japan. The papers said the State Department will make the final decision on whether to transfer their custody to Japanese authorities.

Mauritius expresses appreciation for Japan’s support in containing oil spill

All national papers reported today that Foreign Minister Motegi held a teleconference with the Mauritanian prime minister yesterday and pledged the Japanese government’s continued assistance in helping the island country recover from the massive oil spill caused by a Japanese cargo ship. Japan’s support will reportedly include providing maritime equipment for safe navigation and trawlers for local fishermen and dispatching environmental specialists. The Mauritanian leader reportedly voiced gratitude for Tokyo’s commitment to rebuilding his nation’s economy, saying: “We don’t think Japan is responsible for the incident.”

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team