Morning Alert - Tuesday, February 16, 2021
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Morning news

Broadcasters led with reports on the forecast for a blizzard in Hokkaido and the Tohoku region today (NHK, TBS), preparations underway in individual prefectures to start administering COVID-19 vaccines this week (NTV), record rainfall in the Kanto region yesterday (Fuji TV), and strong winds and heavy rainfall in the Tohoku region yesterday after it was hit by a powerful earthquake on Saturday (TV Asahi).

Main front-page items in national papers included the plan to start vaccinating healthcare workers on Wednesday, the Nikkei stock index surpassing 30,000 yen for the first time in 30 years during yesterday’s trading, and updates on Saturday’s strong earthquake in Tohoku that injured 157 people and damaged some 1,700 homes and other buildings in ten prefectures.


Japan authorizes emergency use of Pfizer vaccine

All national papers wrote that on Sunday the Health Ministry formally approved the emergency use of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine. Two doses of the vaccine will be administered to people aged 16 or older three weeks apart. Healthcare professionals will be vaccinated starting on Wednesday, followed by the elderly and people with underlying conditions. Mainichi wrote that the Kantei has been adamant about vaccinating healthcare workers sooner than initially planned to deflect criticism that the administration’s response to the pandemic has been too slow. As Japan will probably need to decide by late March whether or not to hold the Tokyo Olympics as planned, the Kantei is hoping that a speedy rollout of the vaccination program will alleviate people’s concerns about going ahead with the Games amid the pandemic. Sankei said the GOJ hopes the immunization program will help dispel public discontent over the administration’s handling of the pandemic, adding, however, that the success of the rollout will depend on vaccine supplies from the EU.

In a related story, Saturday’s Nikkei estimated that it will be necessary to mobilize over 11,000 doctors and 28,000 nurses per day to vaccinate some 35.3 million people aged 65 or older at vaccination hubs across the country beginning in April. Many municipalities are reportedly concerned that they won’t be able to secure enough healthcare workers to staff their vaccination centers every day for several months.

Meanwhile, all national dailies wrote on Saturday that AEON, the nation’s leading retailer, announced that it is prepared to make 290 shopping malls across the nation available as COVID-19 vaccination hubs. Mitsubishi UFJ Bank has also unveiled a similar plan for its recreational facilities, while JTB, KNT-CT Holdings, and other major travel agents are planning to deploy some of their employees as clerks to handle registration procedures at local governments’ vaccination centers.


CNN reports that Secretary Blinken plans to tour Asia next month

Sunday’s Mainichi reported on a CNN article saying that Secretary of State Blinken may travel to Asia in mid- or late March. The network reportedly said he may visit Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Defense Secretary Austin may also visit the region at around the same time, according to CNN.

GOJ spokesman comments on U.S.-China relations

Saturday’s Nikkei focused on Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato’s comment on Friday regarding the first teleconference between President Biden and Chinese leader Xi. “Stable relations between Washington and Beijing are extremely important for the international community,” the top government spokesman said. “Japan will hold close communications with China based on a strong relationship of trust with the U.S.”

Motegi comments on U.S. sanctions on Myanmar

Saturday’s Nikkei and Yomiuri reported on remarks made to the press a day earlier by Foreign Minister Motegi on the Biden administration’s decision to impose punitive measures on top Myanmar (Burma) military officials. He was quoted as saying: “We understand these are intended to pressure Myanmar in a very limited manner. The U.S. and Japan share the goal of swiftly restoring a democratic political system in the nation.” As for Japan’s response to the coup there, he indicated a cautious view about adopting similar sanctions by saying: “We would like to coordinate closely with the U.S. and other partners while playing roles that are unique to Japan, such as lobbying the Myanmar military.”

New ROK envoy meets with vice foreign minister

Asahi, Mainichi, and Sankei reported on Saturday that South Korea’s new ambassador to Japan Kang held talks with Vice Foreign Minister Akiba on Friday. While insisting that the recent ROK ruling ordering the Japanese government to pay compensation to former comfort women constitutes a violation of international law, the Japanese diplomat reportedly asked that Seoul swiftly take action to rectify the situation.

Meanwhile, today’s Yomiuri and Sankei reported that MOFA Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau Director General Funakoshi spoke by phone with his South Korean counterpart yesterday and agreed to maintain close bilateral and trilateral coordination with the U.S. in order to seek the denuclearization of North Korea.

ROK reportedly compiles manual on countering Japanese attack on Liancourt Rocks

The Saturday editions of Mainichi, Yomiuri, and Sankei took up an ROK media story saying that the South Korean military submitted to the parliament last December an internal document detailing how to counter an SDF invasion of the Liancourt Rocks. The document reportedly underscored the importance for the country of procuring “new strategic assets” to defend the outcrops from an SDF attack. Defense Minister Kishi reportedly disclosed to the press on Friday that the ministry has conveyed “strong concern” about the story to the South Korean Embassy in Tokyo, adding that the islets are Japan’s inherent territory. “It is extremely regrettable that Seoul apparently regards Japan as elevating the military threat,” he added.

Putin suggests Russia won’t make concessions over territorial row

All national dailies reported from Moscow on remarks made to the local press last week by President Putin concerning the Northern Territories dispute with Japan. “I want to develop ties with Japan, and I will. But I will do absolutely nothing that runs counter to the Constitution.” Explaining that a new provision prohibiting cession of any territory was adopted last year as a result of constitutional revision, the daily interpreted the Russian leader’s remark to mean that his administration will not heed Tokyo’s demand for the return of the four contested islands. Asahi speculated that Putin’s comment perhaps reflected his displeasure with the Suga administration apparently attaching lower priority to Russo-Japanese relations than the Abe administration.

Japan lodges protest against Chinese patrol operations off Senkakus

Sankei and Yomiuri wrote today that two China Coast Guard cutters entered Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkakus yesterday, apparently to chase a Japanese trawler. This was the sixth intrusion of its kind this year. The GOJ reportedly filed a strong protest.

Japan, Iran hold defense ministerial meeting

All national papers reported that Defense Minister Kishi and his Iranian counterpart held a teleconference yesterday and agreed to maintain communications between their defense authorities. Kishi reportedly asked for Tehran’s support in ensuring the safe passage of Japanese commercial vessels in waters in the Middle East. In this context, the Japanese official explained Tokyo’s recent decision to extend by one year the MSDF intelligence collection mission there.


Tokyo Olympics committee to start from scratch in selecting new chief

The Saturday editions of all national dailies reported extensively that Tokyo Olympics organizing committee President Mori formally announced on Friday his resignation to take responsibility for his sexist remarks. Former Chairman of the Japan Football Association Kawabuchi, who had been informally tapped by Mori to take over his post, took himself out of the running amid rising criticism that it was utterly inappropriate for someone who was stepping down in disgrace to pick his successor without consulting other stakeholders. Prime Minister Suga, who had been hesitant to get involved in the selection of Mori’s successor, moved to block Kawabuchi from assuming the portfolio based on the assessment that the administration would come under fire if it allowed the former premier to install a “puppet” in the top committee post. Suga admitted at the Diet yesterday that he pressured the organizing committee not to endorse Kawabuchi. “I strongly told the committee that ensuring transparency in electing a new president will be indispensable to making the Olympics an event that people can embrace wholeheartedly.” Public opinion surveys conducted by Asahi and Mainichi found that seven out of ten respondents felt it was a matter of course for Mori to step down.

The organizing committee reportedly launched a selection panel comprised of equal numbers of women and men with the goal of electing a new leader as soon as possible. Olympics Minister Hashimoto, former Olympics Minister Marukawa, former Commissioner of the Japan Sports Agency Suzuki, and current Commissioner of the Japan Sports Agency Murofushi have emerged as leading candidates.

Dr. Fauci comments on Tokyo Olympics

Asahi, Yomiuri, and Mainichi wrote over the weekend that during a press conference arranged for the foreign press corps by the State Department on Friday, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Fauci commented on the Tokyo Olympics by saying; “It is really going to depend on the dynamics of the outbreak globally and in Japan.” The doctor emphasized that the organizers should put in place strict COVID-19 infection prevention guidelines to ensure the safety of the athletes and spectators who travel to Japan.

Top U.S. court allows extradition of Americans involved in Ghosn’s flight from Japan

NHK reported on Sunday that the U.S. Supreme Court on Saturday rejected an appeal filed by Michael Taylor and his son of the appellate court ruling authorizing their transfer to Japan. Justice Breyer reportedly ruled against the defendants’ argument that they would be tortured in Japan if extradited there and that their assistance in former Nissan CEO Ghosn’s fleeing Japan did not constitute a crime in the first place.

Today’s Nikkei said there are now no legal hurdles standing in the way of transferring their custody to Japan, with a Hitotsubashi University legal scholar projecting that the State Department will decide how to proceed with the extradition. The paper added that the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors’ Office will arrest the Taylors pending their transfer in order to investigate how they abetted the auto executive’s escape from Japan.


Cabinet support improves slightly

Sunday’s Mainichi front-paged the results of the latest public opinion poll that put support for the Suga cabinet at 38%, up 5 points from a month ago, and nonsupport at 51%, down 6 points. This was the first time for the five-month-old administration to see a rise in popularity. Some 23% approved of the GOJ response to the coronavirus resurgence, up 8 points, while 51% disapproved of it, down 15 points. Close to half of the respondents said the COVID-19 state of emergency should be kept in place through March 7. Asahi’s opinion survey pointed to a similar trend, with cabinet support standing at 34%, up 1 point, and nonsupport at 43%, down 2 points. Slightly over 30% approved of the administration’s handling of the pandemic, up 6 points, while 56% felt otherwise, down 7 points.

GOJ, LDP displeased with Koike for boycott of meeting with Mori

Sunday’s Yomiuri wrote that the Suga administration and the ruling LDP are increasingly distrustful of Tokyo Governor Koike, who apparently played a key role in bringing down Tokyo Olympics organizing committee President Mori. Her abrupt decision to boycott a planned four-way meeting with International Olympic Committee President Bach, Mori, and Olympics Minister Hashimoto was regarded as serving an ultimatum to the embattled former prime minister, who had tried to weather the crisis by securing backing from the administration and the ruling party. As Koike is regarded as skillful at reading public opinion and staging political stunts to outmaneuver her political rivals, GOJ and ruling officials are wary that she may try to do the same again to support candidates of her own party in the metropolitan assembly election in July by capitalizing on lingering public discontent about the LDP administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.


GOJ to submit legislation limiting foreign acquisition of land near critical facilities

Sunday’s Yomiuri, Nikkei, and Sankei reported that the GOJ plans to submit draft legislation to the Diet in March aimed at regulating foreign acquisition of real estate adjacent to SDF and U.S. military bases, nuclear and wind power plants, coast guard facilities, airports, and other key infrastructure. Areas within a 1-km radius of facilities that are important for national security will be designated as “watch zones,” where public authorities are allowed to investigate the use of land and buildings. Fines and other penalties may be imposed on those who are deemed to have acquired real estate for inappropriate purposes unless they comply with government orders to rectify the situation.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team