Morning Alert - Monday, March 8, 2021
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Morning news

Broadcasters led with reports on a mid-term report compiled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications saying that its senior officials being treated to expensive meals by the NTT president was in violation of the National Public Service Ethics Code (NHK), cancellations of many spring events due to the COVID-19 situation (NTV), wedding ceremonies being postponed due to the extension of the state of emergency for the Tokyo area (TBS), a TV commercial targeting youths to promote their awareness of the importance of COVID-19 measures (Fuji TV), and the third case of anaphylaxis reaction in Japan after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination (TV Asahi).

Top stories in national dailies included a 44% drop in population in areas hit hard by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake where the ground level was elevated to protect against tsunamis due to prolonged construction work (Yomiuri), the low rate of women’s participation in drafting anti-disaster plans in 42 municipalities that were affected by the 2011 disaster (Asahi), changes in the content of an exhibition on the 2011 nuclear crisis at a Fukushima museum (Mainichi), the finding that government funds to help create jobs in areas affected by the 2011 disaster have not been fully used (Nikkei), and a Health Ministry plan to continue to use hotels as lodgings for COVID-19 patients with minor symptoms (Sankei).


Quad leaders to hold online meeting in mid-March

The Saturday editions of Nikkei, Asahi, and Mainichi wrote that arrangements are underway for the leaders of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India to hold an online meeting this week for the first time under the Quad framework. Asahi wrote that the Quad summit will probably take place on March 12. The papers speculated that the leaders will underscore their policy of attaching importance to the Indo-Pacific with China’s growing influence in the region in mind. They are also expected to discuss security cooperation and a plan to jointly distribute COVID-19 vaccines in Asia to counter Beijing's vaccine diplomacy. Asahi quoted Foreign Minister Motegi as telling reporters on Friday that the foreign ministers of the four nations discussed at their teleconference in February the need for international cooperation in securing fair access to vaccines. Mainichi speculated that the leaders will also discuss maritime security and climate change.

Secretary Blinken, Secretary Austin to visit Japan in mid-March

Saturday’s Nikkei wrote that Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Defense Austin will visit Japan in mid-March in their first overseas trips as the members of the Biden administration. The paper speculated that the secretaries are planning to visit Japan on March 15-17 and may also visit South Korea and Australia. The paper wrote that State Department Spokesperson Price did not provide the details of their trips during a press briefing on Thursday but underscored the United States’ deep commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. The paper speculated that the secretaries decided to visit Japan despite travel restrictions due to the pandemic based on the view that it is important to coordinate with Japan and other nations in the region to develop strategies against China. The paper also wrote that Japan welcomes the secretaries’ planned trip to Tokyo as a good opportunity to demonstrate to the international community its strong alliance with the United States.

Nikkei wrote that the United States and Japan held online security discussions on March 4. According to the State Department, the two nations shared their deep concerns over China’s coast guard law and reiterated their strong opposition to unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force. The paper wrote that Washington and Tokyo have repeatedly confirmed since January that the Senkaku Islands fall under the scope of Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which stipulates the United States’ obligation to defend Japan. The paper speculated that Tokyo is hoping to send the message to the world that the United States is committed to defending the Senkakus even in events that are not categorized as “contingencies,” such as intrusions into Japan’s territorial waters.

The paper also conjectured that the division of security roles between the United States and Japan will be an issue for future discussions between the two nations because the Biden administration, which gives priority to domestic issues such as the pandemic and political divisions at home, may have little capacity to focus on international security cooperation. There is speculation in Japan that Washington may urge Japan to increase its contribution to security cooperation. The paper also speculated that Washington and Tokyo will need to coordinate their response to human rights violations in China. The paper wrote that Japan may have to make a difficult decision on the extent to which it will act in concert with the United States because although Washington has denounced China's human rights violations in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Japan has strong economic ties with China.

China rebuts U.S. criticism of its human rights record as “interference in domestic affairs”

The Monday editions of all national dailies reported on Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s remarks to the press on the sidelines of this year’s annual session of the National People's Congress on Sunday. He reportedly rejected the United States’ criticism of China’s human rights record in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as “unreasonable interference in China's internal affairs.” Wang expressed Beijing’s firm resolve to reject Washington’s criticism of its dealing with Hong Kong and Taiwan by saying that China will never make concessions on the sovereignty of these regions that are core interests.

Wang also commented on the nation's new law allowing its coast guard to use weapons in waters it claims by saying that the legislation is in line with international law and does not target any specific country. The Chinese official justified the law and criticized the U.S. Navy’s “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea. Nikkei wrote that tensions between China and the West in Asia-Pacific waters are rising as the UK and Germany are planning to send warships to the region this year.

Justice ministry to allow foreign residents to update resident status online

Monday’s Nikkei wrote that from fiscal 2021 the Ministry of Justice is planning to allow foreign residents to alter or renew their status of residence online. The paper wrote that although the ministry currently accepts applications for resident status only through companies and organizations sponsoring foreign residents in principle, the new system will allow individual foreign residents to proceed with the process by themselves online. The paper speculated that the new system is intended to increase convenience for users and help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus by reducing the number of people visiting the application offices.


Defense Minister Kishi says U.S. drills in Japan’s territory are “important”

Saturday’s Yomiuri wrote that concerning the U.S. military’s reported plan in February to conduct drills in waters near the Senkaku Islands, Defense Minister Kishi said on Friday he would refrain from commenting on the operations of the U.S. military. However, he went on to say that the U.S. military’s drills in Japan’s territory are important to maintain the peace and security of Japan. Concerning Chinese coast guard vessels’ repeated intrusions into Japan’s territorial waters, Kishi said that Japan will firmly deal with issues related to the Senkakus by coordinating with the United States.

Monument of friendship between U.S. military and local residents established on Tohoku island

Monday’s Yomiuri and Sankei reported on the unveiling on Sunday on Oshima Island in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, of a plaque created by local residents to remember their bonds of friendship with the U.S. military, which extended relief and helped reconstruct the island that was severely damaged by the tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. Residents were stranded because the island was cut off from the mainland. About 600 U.S. Marines helped rebuild the island as part of the U.S. military’s Operation Tomodachi. Maj. Caleb Eames at the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit who took part in the operation ten years ago and has kept in touch with the local residents attended the ceremony.

Cost of FRF construction increased 1.6-fold due to failure to conduct open bidding

Sunday’s Asahi front-paged a report saying it has learned from sources connected with the Defense Ministry that the cost for constructing the Futenma Replacement Facility at Henoko has increased 1.6-fold from the original 25.9 billion yen ($239 million) to 41.6 billion yen ($383 million) over the last two and half years from February 2018 to September 2020 because the ministry has repeatedly extended its contracts for landfill work without holding open competitive bidding. The paper quoted an expert as saying that the process lacks transparency.


State of emergency extended for Tokyo, three neighboring prefectures

The Saturday editions of all national dailies reported extensively on Prime Minister Suga’s announcement at a news conference on Friday of the GOJ’s official decision to extend the state of emergency for two weeks until March 21 for Tokyo and its three neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba. Suga said he made the decision based on the view that two more weeks will be necessary to contain the spread of COVID-19 and carefully monitor the infection situation in the region. The papers wrote that the government is fearful that the levels of hospital bed occupancy in the region remain high and that a resurgence could occur as people's movements have been increasing in some areas and the pace of decline in the number of new cases has bottomed out in recent weeks. The premier stressed that his administration will cooperate with local municipalities to implement effective measures and urge them to renew their push to limit business hours, promote teleworking, and discourage unnecessary outings.

Japan to maintain ban on entry of foreign visitors to protect against COVID variants

Sunday’s Nikkei wrote that the GOJ is planning to maintain tight controls on the entry of foreign nationals following the extension of the state of emergency for Tokyo and its neighboring prefectures to curb the spread of COVID-19. If the declaration is lifted as scheduled for March 21, the government will resume allowing foreign visitors to enter Japan from countries that have not detected new coronavirus variants. Business travel exemptions for China, South Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam for short trips are likely to remain suspended as virus variants have been found in these countries.

GOJ to take strict anti-coronavirus steps to host international conference in Kyoto

Sunday’s Mainichi wrote that the GOJ is planning to take unprecedented measures against COVID-19 infection in order to host the 14th UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (The Kyoto Congress) in Kyoto on March 7-12. The paper wrote that since this will be the first major international conference to be hosted by Japan since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, the government is determined to make it a success by strictly limiting participants’ movements and activities during the conference.

According to this morning’s Nikkei and Mainichi, a total of about 160 UN officials and delegates including cabinet-level ministers have arrived in Japan to participate in the conference, and people from 152 nations are joining the meeting either in person or online.

Prime Minister Suga told the opening session of the conference on Sunday that Japan will proactively contribute to resolving challenges in crime prevention and criminal justice.

Municipalities struggling to prepare for vaccine rollout

Sunday’s Mainichi wrote that municipal governments are struggling to develop specific plans for administering vaccines against COVID-19 to their residents due to delays in the central government’s procurement of vaccines for them. Although the GOJ is planning to start vaccinating 36 million people aged 65 and older on April 12, it will probably only be able to secure doses for about 50,000 people by then. Noting that the delays in vaccine procurement will affect the vaccination of the general public that will follow the immunization of the elderly, the municipal governments are now reviewing their preparations, including setting aside school buildings and other large public facilities for vaccination.

GOJ considers offering COVID-19 vaccination to foreign residents

Saturday’s Mainichi wrote that in response to a written question from a Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker, the GOJ approved a written response on Friday saying that it is considering providing vaccination against COVID-19 to foreign residents in Japan. The government is also considering vaccinating foreign residents with underlying diseases on a priority basis.

GOJ to conduct daily video interviews with foreign visitors for 14 days

Saturday’s Yomiuri wrote that the GOJ decided on March 5 to step up its border control measures against coronavirus infection in Japan. In addition to the request for all travelers entering Japan to monitor their health conditions for 14 days after arrival, the government will require them to respond to daily video interviews. If any of them fail to respond for three days or longer, private security companies will seek their whereabouts. Sunday’s Sankei wrote that Prime Minister Suga referred to the plan at a news conference on Friday.

Takeda seeks GOJ approval for production of Moderna vaccine against COVID-19

The Saturday editions of all national dailies wrote that Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. said on Friday that it has filed a request with the Health Ministry for the approval of its production and distribution in Japan of U.S. biotechnology company Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine. This is the third application for regulatory approval of a COVID-19 vaccine in Japan, following U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and Britain's AstraZeneca. The ministry is expected to make a decision in May or later.

In a related development, this morning’s Nikkei, Mainichi, and Sankei wrote that Health Minister Tamura said on Sunday that his ministry could approve a second COVID-19 vaccine as early as May or June following Pfizer’s.


Prime Minister Suga visits Fukushima

The Sunday editions of Yomiuri, Mainichi, and Nikkei wrote that Prime Minister Suga visited Minamisoma and three other municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture on Saturday ahead of the 10th anniversary on March 11 of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 that severely affected the region and crippled the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Suga told reporters that his administration will make utmost efforts to reconstruct the region. Concerning the disposal of treated radioactive water stored at the nuclear power plant, Suga said that the government will decide how to dispose of it at an appropriate time. The premier, who has pledged efforts to create a decarbonized society, stated at the Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field in the town of Namie that he hopes the facility will become a world-class study center for hydrogen production.

Poll: 78% welcome extension of state of emergency

Monday’s Yomiuri reported on the results of its nationwide poll conducted on March 5-7, in which 78% of the respondents welcomed the GOJ’s extension of the state of emergency for the Tokyo metropolitan region for two weeks until March 21. Cabinet support rose by 9 points to 48%, while nonsupport dropped by 2 points to 42% from the previous survey conducted a month ago.

Speculation rife over timing of next snap general election

Saturday’s Sankei wrote that speculation is rife among LDP lawmakers over when Prime Minister Suga will dissolve the Lower House for a snap general election. Some LDP members speculate that Suga could dissolve the Lower House as early as April, immediately after enacting legislation related to his signature policy of digital transformation. The paper speculated that under this scenario, the election could be set for May and Suga will be able to tout his achievements if the coronavirus situation has been under control and preparations for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics have proceeded smoothly by then. The paper wrote, however, that although the Komeito party is inclined to accept the idea of a May election, there is a risk of a “fourth wave” of COVID-19 by around that time. The paper wrote that another scenario being discussed among LDP lawmakers is for Suga to dissolve the Lower House after the Paralympics end on Sept. 5. Lower House dissolution on Sept. 27 for a snap general election on Oct. 24 is another possibility.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team