Morning Alert   -   Monday, August 2, 2021
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Broadcasters led with reports on yesterday’s meeting of the National Governors’ Association, during which the participants expressed a sense of crisis over the rapid spread of the Delta variant (NHK, NTV), the heatwave across Japan (TBS), the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee’s denial of a link between the Games and the surge in the number of new cases of COVID-19 (Fuji TV), and Japan’s Kaya Kazuma winning the bronze medal in the men’s gymnastics pommel horse at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday (TV Asahi).

Main front-page items in national papers included paradrop training conducted in Guam by GSDF troops, a report on Afghan interpreters who are in danger due to the expedited U.S. military withdrawal, the rapid increase in the number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients in their 40s and 50s, the reinstatement of a COVID-19 state of emergency for Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, and Osaka starting today, and the National Governors Association’s call for people to avoid inter-prefectural travel during summer holidays.


Tokyo’s daily COVID-19 tally hits 4,000 for first time

All national dailies reported on Sunday that a record 4,058 people tested positive for the novel coronavirus in Tokyo on Saturday, three times higher than a week ago. The virus also spread rapidly in other parts of the country, with record numbers of new cases reported in Kanagawa (1,580), Saitama (1,036), Chiba (792), Okinawa (439), Kyoto (199), and four other prefectures. Osaka also confirmed 1,040 cases, marking the highest number there in 3 months.

The nationwide tally for Sunday was 10,177, including 3,053 in Tokyo, 1,258 in Kanagawa, 899 in Saitama, and 890 in Osaka. The overall figure exceeded 10,000 for four consecutive days.

Meanwhile, Sunday’s Yomiuri took up smartphone tracking data showing that the number of people out and about near Shinjuku and Shibuya stations on Saturday afternoon remained almost the same as a week ago, noting that the government’s repeated calls for people to stay home were apparently ignored.

GOJ decides to impose COVID-19 state of emergency on four more prefectures

The Saturday editions of all national dailies reported extensively on the GOJ’s formal decision on Friday to place Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, and Osaka under a fresh COVID-19 state of emergency from Aug. 2 through 31. The ongoing state of emergency for Tokyo and Okinawa will also be extended by 10 days through the end of August. Eateries serving alcohol in the six prefectures will be asked to not operate under the state of emergency. The GOJ will also issue a quasi-state of emergency for Hokkaido, Ishikawa, Kyoto, Hyogo, and Fukuoka.

During a press conference on Friday evening, Prime Minister Suga pledged to employ all available measures to flatten the epidemic curve so that the new state of emergency will be the last one. He also promised to further accelerate the vaccine rollout so that 40% of Japanese people will have received two doses by the end of August, adding that concentrated efforts will be made to vaccinate those in their 50s and under. He called for people not to travel beyond prefectural borders during the summer holidays.

The dailies said the prime minister failed to present any new steps to quickly rein in the virus, noting that the absence of fresh measures signifies that the administration now has no choice but to rely on swift vaccination to contain the fifth wave. Mainichi speculated that the administration was hesitant to take strong measures, such as calling for the closure of major retail outlets, out of fear of displeasing the public, which criticized the administration’s previous attempt to pressure banks to stop providing loans to eateries that refused to comply with requests not to serve alcohol.

Suga was allegedly optimistic about preventing fifth wave

Saturday’s Asahi reported on what it viewed as Suga administration officials’ optimistic outlook for the current surge of COVID-19. Prime Minister Suga and his top associates had reportedly projected that the steady rollout of COVID-19 vaccines would either prevent a fifth wave or minimize its impact. According to the daily, the premier had assumed ahead of the Olympics that the number of new cases in Tokyo at the peak of the fifth wave would be around 2,000, far lower than the latest figures. The daily added that while the prime minister has been baffled by the unexpectedly high numbers, he is still confident that the administration can flatten the epidemic curve by the end of August by speeding up the vaccine rollout. “The light at the end of the tunnel is about to come into view,” said an unnamed senior Kantei official. “The coronavirus will soon be comparable to influenza. There’s nothing to worry about.”

Today’s Sankei wrote that the administration is frustrated with the continued spike in infections, as most officials did not expect an exponential growth of the current level. “With the current surge in new cases, the vaccine rollout at the present pace will not be able to flatten the epidemic curve by the end of August,” said an unnamed cabinet member. “We miscalculated the infection situation.”

More people infected with COVID-19 at home

Saturday’s Nikkei reported that more people have apparently been contracting the novel coronavirus at home during the ongoing fifth wave, citing data released by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government showing that according to contract tracing, some 55% of the people who tested positive for the virus in the third and fourth weeks of July were infected at home. Experts have reportedly noted that the chances of catching the virus at home are growing due to the spread of the highly transmissible Delta strain and an increase in family members staying at home due to the summer holidays.

Tokyo doctors at odds with local government over status of healthcare capacity

Saturday’s Sankei reported on the growing perception gap between the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and physicians in the field about the strain being placed on the local healthcare capacity due to the rise in COVID-19 cases. The public authorities are eager to downplay the perceived shortage of medical resources during the fifth wave of the virus on the grounds that not many elderly people are currently hospitalized. On the other hand, doctors and nurses are extremely alarmed because hospital beds for COVID-19 patients are filling up rapidly and they are concerned that medical resources for non-COVID-19 diseases will be depleted if the upward trajectory continues.

In a related story, Sunday’s Asahi and Sankei reported on Health Ministry data showing that the number of COVID-19 patients who have had no choice but to stay home as of July 31 almost doubled from a week earlier to exceed 10,000 for the first time. The corresponding nationwide figure was 18,933, 1.8 times higher than a week earlier. While 54% of the beds and 57% of the hotel rooms secured for COVID-19 patients were filled as of Saturday, the daily said the remaining beds and rooms will probably be occupied soon in light of the high number of patients waiting for hospitalization.

Almost three out of four elderly people fully vaccinated against COVID-19

Sunday’s Yomiuri and Mainichi wrote that according to GOJ data, 74% of Japanese aged 65 or older had received two doses of coronavirus vaccine as of July 30, with the corresponding figures surpassing 80% in Gifu, Saga, and three other prefectures. In contrast, only 4% of Japanese people aged 64 or younger were fully vaccinated.

Kono says COVID-19 booster shots may be administered next year

Nikkei reported on Saturday on remarks made during an Internet program on Friday by Administrative Minister Kono that booster shots may be administered to fully vaccinated people next year. The cabinet minister, who is in charge of the vaccination program, said to the press on the same day that because shipments of the Moderna product are expected to arrive in Japan later than scheduled, vaccination programs at some workplaces are bound to be affected.

In a related development, all national papers highlighted the Health Ministry’s decision on Friday to allow the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to be administered to people aged 40 or over at government expense. The British product may also be used for people younger than 40 years old if they are allergic to the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine. The ministry separately decided that the Moderna vaccine may now be administered to people aged 12 or older.

Suga rejects view that Olympics triggered COVID-19 resurgence

All national dailies reported that during a press conference on Friday evening, Prime Minister Suga dismissed the view that the ongoing Tokyo Olympics aided the spread of the novel coronavirus in the nation’s capital. “I don’t think the Games are the cause,” he was quoted as saying. “The fact is that people’s mobility is declining” thanks to teleworking and restrictions on traffic such as increased tolls for the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway.

Tokyo Governor Koike also reportedly denied the link between the Games and the spike in infection, telling the press on Friday that more people have chosen to stay home to watch the Olympics on TV. She said only a very small number of people have actually visited the event venues.

In meeting the press on Sunday, CEO Muto of the Olympic organizing committee said he shared with prime minister and the governor that there is no link between the Games and the surge in infections. Pointing out that only one foreigner with Olympic credentials has been admitted to the hospital due to COVID-19, the official said the Games have not burdened the local healthcare system.

However, public health professionals have dismissed the prime minister’s assertion that the Olympics were not responsible for the arrival of the fifth wave, saying that many people have let down their guard since the start of the Olympics. “The Games have impacted on people’s psyches in multiple ways,” said an unnamed epidemiologist on the coronavirus taskforce. “More people have stopped cooperating with infection prevention protocols” as they are “tired of the pandemic” and feel “ambivalent” about the Olympics.

In a related story, Saturday’s Nikkei wrote that in light of the fact that almost 260 Olympic stakeholders have tested positive for the coronavirus since July 1, the foreign media have voiced doubts about the efficacy of the “Olympic bubble.” As half of those who tested positive were reportedly local contract workers with access to event venues and the Athletes’ Village, the daily conjectured that the chances are high that the virus will infiltrate the bubble amid the ongoing resurgence in the nation’s capital. The daily wrote that as the local healthcare system is coming under increasing strain due to the spike in new cases, calls may grow for the organizing committee to reduce the number of doctors and nurses dispatched to the village and event venues so that they can treat COVID-19 patients in their own hospitals.


U.S. ambassador to UN to attend Olympic closing ceremony

Kyodo reported on Saturday on the announcement made by President Biden on Friday that Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield will represent the United States at the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. She will reportedly meet with the Refugee Olympic team during her stay in Tokyo from Aug. 6 through 8.

WHO chief commends Tokyo Olympics on COVID-19 prevention measures

Sunday’s Sankei spotlighted remarks made to the press on Friday by WHO Director General Tedros, who stressed that the IOC and the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee have done their best to minimize the risk of COVID-19 infection during the ongoing Games. Commenting on his attendance at the opening ceremony on July 23, the WHO leader called on the world to draw on the Olympic spirit of unity to bring the pandemic to an end.

Two athletes stripped of Olympic credentials for violating playbook

All Sunday papers took up the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee announcement on Saturday that two persons from an unidentified country were deprived of their Olympic credentials since they left the Athletes’ Village to visit Tokyo Tower. The committee reportedly took the harsh step in response to what it called a “flagrant violation” of the Olympic Playbook. According to the dailies, the athletes were judo silver medalists from Georgia.

According to today’s editions, the organizing committee has also stripped four American and UK contractors of their the Olympic credentials over their arrest on drug charges. The credentials for 8 additional stakeholders were temporarily suspended for undisclosed reasons. Fourteen others were “severely reprimanded” for violations of the Playbook.

Prosecutors admit Yokohama agents falsely indicted for illegal export

All national dailies reported on Saturday that the Tokyo District Prosecutors Office filed a request with the Tokyo District Court on Friday for the rescindment of its earlier accusation that two Yokohama businessmen illegally exported to China and South Korea a device that could be used to make biological weapons. The two defendants, who were arrested in March of 2020, denied charges that they had violated the Foreign Exchange Law. The prosecutors’ office reportedly said a reinvestigation found that the export of the device in question did not require preapproval by public authorities.


U.S., Japanese defense ministers hold teleconference

All national papers except Asahi reported on Saturday that Defense Minister Kishi and Defense Secretary Austin spoke by phone on Friday and agreed to hold an in-person 2+2 defense and foreign ministerial meeting in Washington by the end of this year. They also forged a consensus on enhancing the deterrence of the bilateral alliance through increased cooperation between their two militaries in view of China’s relentless attempts to alter the status quo in the South and East China Seas.

Okinawa retracts permit for coral reef transplantation

Saturday’s Asahi and Yomiuri wrote that on Friday the Okinawa prefectural government revoked the permit for the Okinawa Defense Bureau to transplant coral reefs off the coast of Camp Schwab on the grounds that the bureau failed to comply with the condition that transplantation be avoided when the water temperature is high. The bureau began the transplantation on Thursday only a day after the governor authorized it on a conditional basis. In announcing his decision on the withdrawal of the permit following the bureau’s rejection earlier in the day of his “administrative guidance” to stop the work, the governor said: “The operation was launched when the water temperature was high and a typhoon could hit at any time. Rescindment is appropriate given that the transplantation is bound to endanger the coral reefs.” In a follow-up report, Sunday’s Asahi reported that the Defense Bureau suspended the transplantation work on Saturday.

Japanese paratroopers conduct training in Guam

Saturday’s Mainichi reported that members of the GSDF 1st Airborne Brigade based at a camp in Chiba conducted a joint drill with USFJ personnel at Andersen AFB in Guam on Friday, saying that this was the first time for Japanese paratroopers to fly on and jump out of U.S. military planes during training overseas.

Today’s Sankei ran a similar story, quoting GSDF Chief of Staff Yoshida as saying: “Paradropping is an extremely important tactical operation for the defense of remote islands. The joint training demonstrated U.S.-Japan coordination strategically.”


Vice President Harris to visit Southeast Asia

The Sunday editions of all national papers highlighted the White House announcement on Friday regarding Vice President Harris’s trip to Singapore and Vietnam in August. The dailies said that as other senior officials, including Secretary of State Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State Sherman, and Defense Secretary Austin, also traveled to the Indo-Pacific in late July, the Vice President’s trip signifies the Biden administration’s accelerated focus on deepening ties and coordination with nations in the region with the goal of curbing China’s growing presence. Asahi projected additional visits to the region by senior USG officials aimed at countering China through increased cooperation with regional partners.

Japanese diplomat recalled from South Korea

Sunday’s Nikkei reported on a finding that a senior diplomat at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul has been ordered to return to Japan, noting that the official was reprimanded for making an inappropriate comment about South Korean President Moon when talking to a local journalist in mid-July.

Japan’s ODA increases sharply

Today’s Nikkei reported that Japan’s provision of official development assistance (ODA) is likely to reach a record high this year, surpassing the previous high of $14.4 billion marked in 1995. The GOJ has reportedly committed ODA to a range of COVID-19-related programs for Asia, Latin America, and Africa, including the provision of ventilators, AstraZeneca vaccine, and equipment necessary to transport vaccines, with the goal of countering China’s growing presence in international public health. The GOJ is also eager to use aid programs to promote the free and open Indo-Pacific initiative. Financial assistance was offered to the Philippines to help it boost coast guard capabilities.

FM Motegi to participate virtually in ASEAN conference

The Saturday editions of all national papers wrote that during a press conference on Friday, Foreign Minister Motegi said he will virtually participate in ASEAN-related international confabs to be held from Aug. 3 through 5. He projected that the situation in Myanmar and China’s maritime push will be high on the agenda.

Seven additional nations, regions to accept Japan’s vaccine passports

According to Saturday’s Yomiuri, Germany, Hong Kong, and five other nations and one region have agreed to recognize Japan’s COVID-19 vaccine certificate as a document that exempts Japanese citizens from quarantine requirements.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team