Morning Alert   -   Monday, August 16, 2021
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All broadcasters led with reports on the heavy rain in Japan’s southwestern region of Kyushu and other parts of the nation that caused floods and landslides. At least four people were killed, four others were injured, and five remain missing. No papers were published this morning due to a press holiday.


Nationwide tally of new COVID-19 cases tops 20,000 for two consecutive days

The Saturday editions of all national papers reported that 20,366 people tested positive for COVID-19 across the nation on Friday, exceeding 20,000 for the first time. Caseloads hit record highs in 16 prefectures, including Tokyo (5,773), Kanagawa (2,281), Saitama (1,696), Chiba (1.089), and Kyoto (450). The Health Ministry reported that the number of seriously ill patients was 1,478 nationwide as of Aug. 12, surpassing the previous record of 1,413 that was marked during the fourth wave in the spring. Over 74,000 people were recuperating at home nationwide, with some of them waiting for several days to be hospitalized. In view of the shortage of hospital beds for seriously ill patients in the Tokyo metropolitan area and Okinawa, concern is growing that even patients with moderate symptoms could end up dying at home or in hotels. Most of the patients in serious condition are now under 60 years of age.

The nationwide tally for Saturday was 20,151, with Kanagawa (2,356), Saitama (1,800), Chiba (1,272), Osaka (1,828), Okinawa (752), and seven other prefectures reporting record high numbers of cases. The number of people in serious condition rose to 1,521.

PM Suga comments on fifth wave of COVID-19

All national dailies on Saturday highlighted remarks made to the press on Friday by Prime Minister Suga on the ongoing coronavirus resurgence and the considerable strain being placed on healthcare capacities. “Tokyo’s healthcare system is in an extremely severe situation,” he was quoted as saying. “The government’s foremost task is to protect people’s lives.” The prime minister stressed that measures will be taken to support patients who are recuperating at home by maintaining their communication with doctors and public health centers, launching “oxygen stations” so that those suffering from low blood oxygen levels can be provided with oxygen therapy, and establishing platforms for administering antibody cocktails to reduce the risk of symptoms. The premier also promised that the government will make utmost efforts to reduce the number of patrons at department stores, shopping malls, and other major retail outlets in close coordination with their operators. He also projected that four out of five people in Japan will be fully vaccinated by early October.

In a related story, Saturday’s Nikkei said a number of small clinics in Tokyo that have not been involved in treating COVID-19 patients due to a lack of resources and expertise are now preparing to help care for patients recuperating at home in response to desperate pleas for help from public authorities.

Numerous cluster infections reported at schools, workplaces

Saturday’s Nikkei wrote that large numbers of cluster infections have been detected in workplaces and at schools during the ongoing fifth wave of COVID-19. The paper noted that that while public authorities have concentrated on preventing infection at eateries up until now in the belief that people tend to be most vulnerable to the virus when dining out, experts now believe that any location can become a breeding ground for the virus in view of the rapid spread of the highly transmissible Delta strain. Since large-scale cluster infections have been reported at department store food halls in Tokyo and Osaka, major retailers have begun limiting the number of customers allowed to enter in the evenings and on weekends.

In a related story, Sunday’s Nikkei wrote that although the GOJ coronavirus taskforce has called for reducing the flow of people in Tokyo by half from the levels marked in early July in order to flatten the epidemic curve, smartphone tracking data showed that the number of people out and about near major stations and entertainment districts in the nation’s capital has only declined by about 30%. The number of people who left Tokyo for rural areas such as Tohoku was up by 18% from the Obon season last year. The daily said the data suggested that not many people share the GOJ’s sense of crisis.

Governors’ association criticizes GOJ for failing to combat COVID-19 resurgence

Saturday’s Sankei reported that the National Governors’ Association issued an emergency statement on Friday blaming the Suga administration for failing to stem the rise in coronavirus infections. The group urged the prime minister to implement a lockdown or take other draconian steps based on the judgment that individual leaders will no longer be able to rein in the virus in their prefectures in the absence of strong steps by the central government.

GOJ to announce COVID-19 “exit strategy”

According to Saturday’s Asahi, the GOJ is considering presenting to the public next week a timeline showing how people’s lifestyles will change in accordance with progress on the COVID-19 vaccination front so that they can put up with the severe restrictions on their daily activities for a few more months. The administration plans to stipulate when fully vaccinated people will be allowed to go out for drinks or attend concerts and other large-scale gatherings with few restrictions. As many people are tired of exercising self-restraint and fed up with state of emergency declarations, the GOJ reportedly believes that announcing an exit strategy may encourage some young people to get vaccinated. A GOJ source reportedly noted that the LDP has been putting pressure on the administration to show people when they will be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, some public health experts are cautious about presenting such an outlook at this juncture in the belief that young people may be misled by rosy scenarios.

Vaccinated medical workers permitted to treat COVID-19 patients after exposure

Saturday’s Yomiuri and Asahi said the Health Ministry has decided to allow doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers to treat coronavirus patients even after they have been in close contact with virus carriers as long as they have received two doses of vaccine and test negative in daily PCR tests. The ministry decided to ease the current regulation in view of the fact that some healthcare providers were barred from reporting to work after having been in close contact with family members who tested positive for the virus during the ongoing fifth wave. As a result, some hospitals were forced to stop providing coronavirus treatment due to a shortage of employees despite a surge in patients.

Japan’s first case of COVID-19 Lambda variant connected to Tokyo Olympics

Saturday’s Yomiuri reported on the finding that the woman in her 30s who tested positive for the Lambda variant of the novel coronavirus upon arrival at Haneda Airport from Peru on July 20 was carrying a Tokyo Olympics accreditation card. This was the first time for the Lambda strain, which is classified by the WHO as a “variant of interest,” to be detected in Japan.


Yokohama mayoral race to have significant bearing on Suga’s political fate

Saturday’s Nikkei and Yomiuri wrote that Prime Minister Suga’s grip on power could weaken considerably if former cabinet member Okonogi loses the mayoral election in Yokohama on Aug. 22. The dailies noted that even though the candidate’s strong opposition to the idea of the city hosting an integrated resort featuring a casino is incompatible with his advocacy of the project, the premier and the ruling LDP plan to mobilize all resources available to help Okonogi defeat the seven other candidates, including incumbent Mayor Hayashi and former professor of medicine Yamanaka, who is backed by the opposition bloc. According to Yomiuri, Mayor Hayashi tried to gain the prime minister’s support for her reelection bid in mid-July by assuring him her determination to attract a casino was steadfast, but Suga allegedly turned her down by saying he was committed to electing Okonogi, who has been his close confidant for years. The papers projected that the outcome of the race may determine whether the ruling party will continue to support Suga as the chief campaigner in the upcoming general election to be held within the next few months. The dailies added that the Suga administration’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak will probably be another key campaign issue.

In a follow-up item, Sunday’s Yomiuri wrote that according to the results of its latest public opinion poll and a field survey, Okonogi, Yamanaka, and Hayashi are running neck and neck, followed by former Kanagawa Governor Matsuzawa, who gave up his Upper House seat to run for mayor.


Parts fall off USMC Osprey in Okinawa

Saturday’s Asahi and Yomiuri reported very briefly that according to the Okinawa Defense Bureau, a panel and a small component fell off a Futenma-based MV-22 Osprey on Thursday night, noting that the point of impact appeared to be somewhere between the Northern Training Area and the Futenma Air Station. No injuries or property damage were reported.

MOD to seek funding for converting Aegis Ashore radar for use on sea-based platform

Sunday’s Mainichi reported that the Defense Ministry is likely to request several billion yen in the FY2022 budget for converting the SPY-7 Aegis Ashore radar for use aboard destroyers, saying that various modifications will be necessary, such as making the equipment resistant to oscillation and salt damage at sea.

Japan to use artificial intelligence to monitor unidentified vessels

Sunday’s Yomiuri gave top coverage to the disclosure by several GOJ sources that the government plans to launch a system in FY2024 using artificial intelligence to detect and track unidentified vessels around the Japanese archipelago. Imagery collected by intelligence satellites will be analyzed by artificial intelligence, which can process large volumes of data to pinpoint and identify multiple suspicious ships instantly. The GOJ is hoping that the mechanism will enable the Japan Coast Guard to respond faster to intrusions by Chinese patrol boats into Japanese territory around the Senkakus and rampant illegal fishing involving North Korean trawlers in the Sea of Japan.


Japan to evacuate its embassy in Kabul

NHK reported this morning that Japan has decided to evacuate personnel from its embassy in Kabul. Kyodo News also said on Sunday evening that Japanese government sources said Japan is set to evacuate all personnel from its embassy in Kabul as Taliban fighters reportedly entered Afghanistan's capital calling for a peaceful transfer of power. A dozen Japanese staff work at the embassy. Kyodo said the United States evacuated its embassy staff by helicopter amid the political crisis. "The situation is developing very quickly," one of the sources said. "We are gathering information in cooperation with the United States and European countries."

FM Motegi to visit Middle East amid Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan

Sunday’s Nikkei highlighted Foreign Minister Motegi’s ten-day Middle East tour that began on Aug. 15, saying that he plans to underscore when meeting with his counterparts the importance of human rights, the rule of law, and democracy at a time when the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan triggered by the U.S. military drawdown may endanger regional stability. Japan is reportedly afraid that the U.S. withdrawal will generate a “power vacuum” and allow the Middle East to become a hotbed of international terrorism again. Motegi is expected to offer Tokyo’s support for ensuring the stability of the region, which is critical for Japan's energy security.

Cabinet members pay homage at Yasukuni Shrine

All national papers reported on Saturday that Defense Minister Kishi and Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Nishimura both visited Yasukuni Shrine on Friday, noting that they were the first members of the Suga cabinet to pay homage at the hrine. The defense chief told the press afterward that he visited the memorial to “renew the renunciation of war.” The ROK government reportedly lodged a protest against the latest pilgrimage, underscoring that it undermined the relationship of trust between the two countries. The Chinese Foreign Ministry also voiced “extreme displeasure and resolute opposition.”

All broadcasters reported on Sunday evening that Prime Minister Suga sent an offering and Environment Minister Koizumi and Education Minister Hagiuda paid visits to Yasukuni Shrine on Sunday. The broadcasters said that South Korea expressed deep disappointment and regret over Suga’s offering and the visits by his Cabinet members to the shrine.

ROK unlikely to make swift moves to resolve comfort women dispute

Saturday’s Mainichi wrote from Seoul that the South Korean government has not taken any substantive measures to achieve a breakthrough in the comfort women dispute with Japan, projecting that it will be difficult to resolve the issue before President Moon steps down next May. As Tokyo has made it clear that it will never make any concessions on the 2015 bilateral accord affirming the “final and complete resolution” of the dispute, the Moon administration has allegedly been trying to identify a solution that will alleviate the victims’ suffering. However, no progress has been made in discussions between the government, the victims, and their support groups in part due to differences of opinion.

In a related development, Kyodo wrote that President Moon said in a video message for an online event held on Saturday in memory of a former comfort woman that his administration is committed to resolving the history dispute with a “victim-centered” approach. However, he did not present any concrete ideas for the proposed approach and he did not criticize Japan

Local Chinese authorities urge fishermen not to operate around Senkakus

Saturday’s Yomiuri reported from Beijing that fishery authorities in Fujian Province have instructed local fishermen not to operate in what they called “sensitive areas” when the fishing season starts on Aug. 16 in the East China Sea, including in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands. The daily speculated that the Chinese government may have been trying to prevent large numbers of trawlers from operating near the disputed outcrops.

Few countries recognize Japan’s vaccine passport

Saturday’s Yomiuri wrote that only 16 nations and regions, including Italy, Australia, and Hong Kong, have recognized Japan’s COVID-19 vaccine passport as a legitimate document exempting travelers from mandatory quarantine or PCR testing upon entry. The daily said other countries are apparently hesitant to follow suit since Tokyo has no plans to recognize their vaccine passports in return for the time being on account of the ongoing COVID-19 resurgence.

Japan seals memorandum with Singapore on arbitration of business disputes

According to Sunday’s Yomiuri, the Justice Ministry signed a memorandum with its Singaporean counterpart on stepping up bilateral cooperation for resolving cross-border business disputes. As Singapore is known for having a wealth of expertise on the arbitration of international business conflicts, the Japanese side is eager to learn such knowhow through personnel exchanges.


Students to be allowed to watch Paralympics events live

The Saturday editions of all national papers wrote that the GOJ and the Tokyo Paralympics organizing committee have informally decided not to allow spectators at event venues in Tokyo, Saitama, and Chiba. Events in Shizuoka, however, will be opened to up to 5,000 ticketholders per venue. They also concluded that elementary, middle, and high school students will be allowed to attend Paralympics events at selected locations on the condition that they do not use public transportation to go to the venues. Chartered buses may be arranged to transport students and teachers between their schools and the event venues. Local education boards and school administrators will be given the final say over whether to participate in the Paralympics school program while taking into account the COVID-19 infection situation.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team