Morning Alert - Tuesday, January 19, 2021
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Morning news

Broadcasters led with reports on the finding that three people in Shizuoka with no history of traveling abroad were found to be infected with the UK variant of COVID-19 (NHK, Fuji TV, TV Asahi), Okinawa’s decision to forgo issuing on Monday its own state of emergency over COVID-19 (NTV), and growing moves among restaurants around the nation to ask their customers to avoid talking while eating to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 (TBS).

All national papers except Nikkei gave top coverage to Prime Minister Suga’s policy speech at the Diet on Monday during which he expressed strong resolve to swiftly rein in the coronavirus resurgence. Nikkei’s top story was on major Japanese companies’ moves to allow their employees to work remotely from locations other than their homes.


Suga vows to contain COVID-19 as soon as possible

All national dailies reported extensively on a major speech that Prime Minister Suga delivered yesterday at the Diet to present the administration’s policy goals for this year, noting that the embattled premier underscored his firm commitment to combating the novel coronavirus. “I will bring the infection under control as soon as possible in order to restore safety,” he was quoted as saying. The papers took note of the fact that Suga did not mention “balancing infection prevention and the economy” even though he has used the phrase repeatedly on previous occasions to highlight his focus on rebuilding the ailing economy hit hard by the pandemic. The dailies conjectured that the premier apparently decided to prioritize winning the battle against COVID-19 in view of strong criticism that the administration’s focus on economic reconstruction, including the “Go To Travel” tourism promotion campaign, has apparently allowed the virus to spread even further throughout the nation. The dailies also observed that in unveiling his policy platform, Suga took a “low key” attitude and appeared to be “on the defensive” in the face of rising public disapproval of the administration’s response to the pandemic.

UK variant of coronavirus detected in Shizuoka

All national papers reported today on the Heath Ministry’s announcement last night that three people in Shizuoka have tested positive for the UK strain of COVID-19, saying that since none of them have recently traveled overseas or been in close contact with people who have, the cases could indicate community transmission of the new variant, which is said to be 70% more infectious that the original strain. This was the first time for the new variant to be detected in cases for which the infection routes cannot be traced. The ministry separately disclosed that the same strain was detected in a Tokyo man in his 20s who arrived in Japan from the UK on Dec. 31.

Legal revision to empower governors to secure hospital beds for COVID-19 patients

Saturday’s Asahi front-paged a report saying that a panel of experts approved on Friday a proposal by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW) to revise the Infectious Disease Prevention Law to give prefectural governors more power to secure hospital beds for COVID-19 patients. The paper said that although the health minister and prefectural governors can currently only “request” that healthcare professionals cooperate in preventing the further spread of the virus, the proposed change would upgrade the “request” to an “advisory,” and medical institutions that refuse to cooperate without a compelling reason would have their names disclosed. The daily wrote that about 60% of hospitals established by public entities are accepting COVID-19 patients, but only about 20% of private hospitals are doing so. Since private facilities make up about 70% of all hospitals, the GOJ is reportedly hoping that the legal revision will prompt more of them to cooperate and make beds available to COVID-19 patients.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s Yomiuri reported that the legal revision would also allow governors to penalize COVID-19 patients who refuse to be hospitalized or respond to surveys of their behavior. The paper said the MHLW is considering imposing one-year jail sentences or fines of one million yen or less for people who refuse to be hospitalized and fines of 500,000 yen or less for people who refuse to respond to the surveys. The paper noted, however, that some members of the panel expressed reservations about penalizing people because doing so would strongly impinge on citizens’ rights.

Prefectures not under state of emergency also suffering hospital bed shortages

Saturday’s Yomiuri reported that according to data disclosed by the GOJ on Friday, some prefectures that are not among the 11 prefectures under the state of emergency are at “Stage 4,” the highest level on the four-point scale, indicating that their healthcare systems are at risk of collapsing due to an explosive rise in infections with bed occupancy at 50% or higher. The paper also wrote that the bed occupancy rate for seriously ill patients in Tokyo had exceeded capacity at 104%. According to the report, the number of infections per 100,000 people over the preceding week was 81 in Tokyo, 43 in Osaka, and more than 25 in all the other prefectures under the state of emergency. The paper also wrote that the bed occupancy rates for COVID-19 patients were 76% in Shiga, 66% in Gunma, 59% in Mie, 62% in Kumamoto, and 51% in Hiroshima.

More than 30,000 COVID-19 patients recuperating at home nationwide

Sunday’s Sankei reported that the MHLW announced on Saturday that the number of coronavirus patients recuperating at home in Japan had reached 30,208 as of Wednesday, saying that the figure was about 1.7 times that of the previous week. The paper wrote that the number of homebound patients rapidly increased to exceed 10,000 in late December and surpassed 30,000 in January. Tokyo reportedly has the largest number of homebound patients at 8,518, up over 3,000 from a week earlier, and the total number of cases in the Tokyo metropolitan area, including Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures, was around 20,000. The paper also said Osaka, Aichi and Fukuoka prefectures had reported over 2,000 cases as of Jan. 13.

GOJ to forgo providing financial support to Hiroshima

Sunday’s Yomiuri reported that the GOJ decided on Saturday to forgo for the time being designating the City of Hiroshima as an area eligible for the same government financial support as areas under the state of emergency. The paper wrote that according to a GOJ source, the decision was made in view of the improving infection situation in the city.

MHLW to designate about 10,000 COVID-19 vaccination hubs

Sunday’s Yomiuri gave front-page play to a report that the MHLW has decided to designate about 10,000 medical institutions nationwide as “basic-type vaccination facilities” and equip them with ultracold freezers that can preserve vaccines at about minus 75 degrees Celsius. The paper wrote that vaccines will be transferred to nearby clinics, which are designated as “satellite-type vaccination facilities,” in order to efficiently vaccinate large numbers of people. According to the daily, one basic-type or a satellite-type vaccination facility is expected to be established for every 5,000 people throughout the nation.

In a related development, all national dailies reported that Prime Minister Suga tasked Administrative Reform Minister Kono on Monday with conducting coordination within the administration and between the central government and local governments for launching a nationwide coronavirus vaccination program. “We will do our utmost to implement a safe and effective vaccination plan,” Suga was quoted as telling the press.

MHLW approves COVID-19 testing on five people at once

Yomiuri reported on Saturday that the MHLW has decided to permit “pool-type” PCR testing in which the specimens of five people will be combined and tested for COVID-19 at once in order to efficiently determine whether the group tests negative for the virus. The paper explained that if the test result is positive, all of the people in that group must undergo individual tests again. The daily said the MHLW is envisioning conducting pool testing in areas where there are low numbers of cases of COVID-19.

SDF nurses ready for deployment to areas that increase beds for COVID-19 patients

Saturday’s Nikkei reported that in light of the resurgence of COVID-19, the GOJ is set to deploy SDF nurses to local municipalities that increase their hospital beds for COVID-19 patients. The paper wrote that upon request from the governors, SDF nurses will be sent to areas where the numbers of COVID-19 patients are surging and will remain there for about two weeks. The daily said some hospitals are unable to accept COVID-19 patients even if they increase their beds because there are not enough nurses. Defense Minister Kishi reportedly told the press on Friday: “We are ready to swiftly deploy SDF medical staff if we receive requests from local municipalities.”

In a related story, Sunday’s Nikkei front-paged a report that the Ministry of Defense will reorganize SDF hospitals around the nation as early as FY2021 and enhance the functions of three of them located in the Tokyo metropolitan area as core hospitals for treating patients with infectious diseases and providing medical care in the event of disasters. The three hospitals are the Self Defense Forces Central Hospital in Setagaya, Tokyo, Yokosuka Hospital in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, and Irima Hospital to be established in Irima, Saitama.


ROK leader comments on history disputes with Japan

The Tuesday editions of all national dailies reported from Seoul on remarks made to the press yesterday by President Moon on the requisitioned workers dispute with Japan. “Liquidation [of the financial assets of Japanese firms seized by local courts] is not desirable in the context of ROK-Japan relations,” he was quoted as saying. “I am confident that the two governments can discuss measurers that will be satisfactory to the victims and that the South Korean government can resolve the problem by persuading them.” The papers interpreted the statement to mean that Seoul might have decided to abandon its previous policy of respecting judicial decisions and is now willing to seek a diplomatic solution. The South Korean leader also reportedly commented on a recent local court ruling ordering the Japanese government to pay compensation to former comfort women. “Honestly speaking, I am perplexed that the issue of the comfort women ruling has emerged while we are making diplomatic efforts,” said President Moon. “The government acknowledges that [the 2015 comfort women agreement with Japan] is a formal pact, upon which we will build and find a solution that the victims can embrace.”

Yomiuri speculated that the top ROK official softened its approach toward Japan perhaps In a bid to enlist Tokyo’s cooperation so that he can “leave a legacy” on his signature policy of establishing reconciliation with North Korea, which has been stalled as a result of rupture in denuclearization talks between the Kim regime and the Trump administration. Seoul is reportedly hoping that Tokyo will join hands to press President-elect Biden to restart dialogue with Pyongyang quickly in the belief that the denuclearization talks collapsed because President Trump took a hard line as a result of Japan’s lobbying.

Japan reportedly reacted cautiously to President Moon’s apparent policy shift on the history disputes, with Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Sakai saying to the press yesterday: “We took note of the president’s remarks. We will be keeping a close eye on the South Korean government’s next moves.” Because Moon did not mention any concrete steps that his administration will take to settle the disputes, Tokyo is still skeptical about his commitment to finding a solution. “The disputes can’t be resolved through bilateral dialogue,” said a Japanese diplomatic source, adding that Seoul should act unilaterally to dismiss the relevant lawsuits without Japan’s involvement. Yomiuri focused on Prime Minister Suga’s reference to South Korea as being Japan’s “important neighbor” during his key policy speech at the Diet yesterday, explaining that former PM Abe called the nation an “extremely important neighbor” in similar parliamentary speeches. The paper claimed that Suga “downgraded” Seoul to demonstrate his distrust of the Moon administration.

LDP adopts resolution of protest against ROK’s court ruling on comfort women

Asahi and Nikkei reported on Saturday the LDP held a joint meeting of its Foreign Affairs Division and Research Commission on Foreign Affairs on Friday and adopted a resolution of protest against the recent ruling by a South Korean court ordering the GOJ to pay damages to former comfort women. The resolution reportedly calls on the ROK government to take measures to correct its violation of international law and urges the GOJ to take countermeasures such as taking the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The resolution will be submitted to Foreign Minister Motegi in the near future.

In a related story, Asahi and Yomiuri reported on Saturday that MOFA Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau chief Funakoshi held a video conference with his South Korean counterpart Kim Jung-han. Funakoshi reportedly called on South Korea to take measures to correct its violation of international law in relation to the recent court ruling.

Meanwhile, Monday’s Nikkei and Mainichi reported from Seoul that new South Korean Ambassador to Japan Kang Chang-il, who will assume his post on Jan. 22, held an online meeting with the Japanese media on Sunday. On the strained bilateral relationship over the issues of former requisitioned workers and court ruling on comfort women, Kang reportedly said he would do his utmost to fulfill his mission to create a future-oriented relationship. He also reportedly expressed hope to improve bilateral ties on the occasion of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Public less anxious about U.S.-Japan relations under incoming Biden administration

Monday’s Yomiuri reported that it found through its opinion survey conducted on Jan. 15 to 17 that in light of the imminent launch of the Biden administration, the Japanese public is far less anxious about the future of U.S.-Japan relations than four years ago when President Trump was inaugurated. According to the paper, 49% of respondents said they feel equally hopeful and anxious about the future of U.S.-Japan relations, 28% said they are more hopeful, and 19% said they are more anxious. In a survey conducted on January of 2017, immediately after the inauguration of President Trump, 70% said they were more anxious, 24% said they felt equally hopeful and anxious, and 4% said they were more hopeful. The daily wrote that the results reflect President-elect Biden’s policy of placing emphasis on multilateralism and U.S. allies as opposed to President Trump’s “America First” policy.

Wendy Sherman to be appointed deputy secretary of state

Monday’s Mainichi reported that the Biden transition team announced on Saturday that Wendy Sherman will be appointed deputy secretary of state. The paper wrote that Sherman led the nuclear talks with Iran as the under secretary of state for political affairs during the Obama administration, and also served as a North Korea policy coordinator during the Clinton administration. The paper wrote that if Sherman is approved by the Senate, she will become the first female deputy secretary of state. The daily added that Brian McKeon was also nominated to serve as deputy secretary of state, saying although there was only one deputy secretary of state under the Trump administration, there will be two under the new administration.

Foreign Minister Motegi welcomes new Indo-Pacific coordinator position at White House

Yomiuri reported on Saturday that Foreign Minister Motegi told the press on Friday that he “welcomes” President-elect Biden’s plan to create a new position for an Indo-Pacific coordinator within the White House. Motegi reportedly said the establishment of the new position “shows that the incoming administration places importance on the Indo-Pacific region.”

U.S., Japan, Australia, India to cooperate in ensuring stable supply of rare earths

Sunday’s Sankei gave front-page play to the finding on Saturday that Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India began strengthening cooperation toward ensuring a stable supply of rare metals, such as rare earth minerals and cobalt. They reportedly confirmed cooperation during director-general level talks held via video conference on Dec. 18. Noting that China is tightening its control over rare earths by unveiling on Friday a draft bill designed to strengthen control of rare earths, the paper wrote that the four nations are planning to expand their defense cooperation to include resource security in light of the threat posed by China.

G7 Summit to be held in person for first time in two years in UK

All national dailies reported on Monday that the British government announced on Saturday that it will host the G7 Summit in Carvis Bay, Cornwall, from June 11 to 13. The papers said the summit will be held in person for the first time in two years. Asahi wrote that this could be the first major international event for President-elect Biden to participate in, adding that he will be tested as to whether he will be able to rebuild the relationship of trust with the world leaders that was lost under the Trump presidency and maintain unity to face challenges, including measures against COVID-19.

NHK reported on Monday that Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato told the press that Prime Minister Suga’s attendance will be coordinated after considering various factors, including the schedule of the Diet session. Kato also reportedly said: “It is extremely important for the G7 members to unite and take the lead in forming an international order in the post-coronavirus era. Japan will actively contribute to discussions among the G7 members on important issues such as measures against COVID-19 and global health.”


Public support for Suga Cabinet continues to drop

Monday’s Yomiuri front-paged a report on the results of its opinion poll conducted from Jan. 15 to 17, which found that public support for the Suga Cabinet dropped 6 points from last month to 39% and nonsupport rose 6 points to 49%. This is reportedly the first time for the nonsupport rate to exceed the support rate under the Suga administration. The paper wrote that the latest results reflected strong public discontent with the government’s response to COVID-19. Concerning the COVID-19 state of emergency declared for 11 prefectures, 42% of respondents said it should be expanded nationwide, 36% said it should be expanded to include more prefectures, and 19% said it should remain as is. On the GOJ’s measures against COVID-19, 66% expressed disapproval, up 4 points from last month, and 85% said there is not enough coordination between the central government and prefectural governments over the new coronavirus.

Sunday’s Mainichi also reported on the results of the opinion poll it jointly conducted with the Social Survey Research Center on Jan. 16, which found that public support for the Suga Cabinet dropped 7 points from last month to 33% and nonsupport rose 8 points to 57%. On the state of emergency declaration, 71% said it came too late, while 18% said it was appropriate. In addition, 50% said the state of emergency should be expanded nationwide, while 42% said it should not. As for COVID-19 measures under the Suga administration, 66% expressed disapproval, while 15% expressed approval.

GOJ suffers setback in key election in Okinawa

Asahi, Yomiuri, and Mainichi reported on Tuesday on the results of Sunday’s mayoral election in Miyakojima, Okinawa, noting that the GOJ-backed incumbent was defeated by the candidate supported by Governor Tamaki. The papers explained that the loss dealt a blow to the Suga administration and the ruling coalition since they mobilized “full resources” for Mayor Shimoji’s reelection bid based on the assessment that the race would have a major impact on the gubernatorial election to be held next year. The dailies noted that there will also be mayoral races in Urasoe next month and Uruma in April.


CCS Kato says plan to host Tokyo Games remains unchanged

Monday’s Nikkei reported that Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato said on a Fuji TV program that aired on Sunday that the plan to host the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer remains unchanged. While citing a New York Times article saying that “the IOC may be forced to cancel the Olympics for the first time since World War II,” the paper quoted Kato as saying: “The venues and schedules have been decided. Officials are making preparations, including measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Number of athletes at Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony to be reduced by half

Monday’s Yomiuri reported that it learned from a source that the International Olympics Committee (IOC) is estimating that about 6,000 athletes will attend the opening ceremony for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which is half the original figure. The paper said this is because the number of days athletes will stay in the athletes’ village will be restricted as part of measures to prevent COVID-19 infection. The daily said this is also intended to contribute to “simplifying” the Olympic Games.

Families of U.S. service members remain “tomodachi” 10 years after Tohoku disaster

Sunday’s Yomiuri carried an inside-page report saying that “Helping Hands For Tohoku,” a volunteer group that was established one month after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake by family members of U.S. service members who belonged to Yokosuka Naval Base, is still conducting activities to provide support for the victims of the disaster that occurred ten years ago. The paper wrote that some members of the group continue to visit local communities in Tohoku and deepen exchanges there even after returning to the U.S., saying that the group received letters and emails from people in the disaster-hit areas expressing appreciation.


MOD on alert against North Korea’s new short-range ballistic missiles

Sunday’s Sankei reported that the Ministry of Defense is on the alert against what appeared to be a new type of short-range ballistic missile displayed at a military parade held in North Korea on Thursday. The daily said the new missile, which may be an improved model of Russia’s short-range ballistic missile Iskander, may pose a greater threat to Japan as its range may have been extended to reach a wider area of Japan. The paper wrote that the ministry is collecting and analyzing information on the new missile as well as a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) that was also displayed at the parade.


Toyota agrees to reach settlement ahead of launch of Biden administration

The Saturday edition of Nikkei reported that Toyota Motor announced on Friday that it has agreed to pay the U.S. Justice Department about 18.6 billion yen ($180 million) to settle a civil lawsuit related to emissions guidelines. The paper wrote that the Japanese automaker apparently demonstrated its stance to earnestly address environmental issues by reaching a settlement ahead of the inauguration of the Biden administration, which is expected to take a tough stance on environmental restrictions.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team