Morning Alert   -   Monday, August 23, 2021
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Broadcasters led with reports on the surging cases of COVID-19 across Japan, with 22,302 new cases confirmed nationwide on Sunday (NHK), the increasing number of COVID-19 patients who died while recuperating at home (NTV), the number of COVID-19 patients having to recuperate at home approaching 100,000 (TBS, Fuji TV), and an incident on a train in Tokyo in which a man harassed other passengers by shouting that he was infected with the Delta variant (TV Asahi).

Main front-page items in national papers included the victory of an opposition candidate in Sunday’s Yokohama mayoral election, Japan’s informal decision to dispatch a military plane to Afghanistan as early as today to repatriate stranded Japanese aid workers, and the ASDF’s plan to conduct joint training with the Indian Air Force by next March.


President Biden to nominate Rahm Emanuel as envoy to Japan

The Sunday editions of all national papers highlighted the White House announcement on Friday that President Biden will nominate former Chief of Staff for President Obama Rahm Emanuel as ambassador to Japan. The papers speculated that the President tapped the tough politician to strengthen the bilateral alliance amid rising tensions with China. The White House reportedly described Emanuel as having had a “distinguished career in public service.” The presumptive nominee said in a statement: “The alliance between the United States and Japan is the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific, and I would proudly represent our nation with one of our most critical global allies.”

Several outlets predicted that Emanuel may run into difficulties during the Senate confirmation process because he has a number of political enemies not only among Republicans but also within his own Democratic Party on account of his “combative” and “pro-business” nature. They also pointed out that his handling of the police shooting of an African American teenager when he was the mayor of Chicago drew considerable criticism. Asahi and Yomiuri noted that the nomination was delayed for months on account of opposition from the progressive wing of the Democrat Party, with Yomiuri claiming that Emanuel had been hoping to arrive in Japan in time for the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. According to a USG source cited by Asahi, calls grew in early summer among Democratic lawmakers led by Senator Mazie Hirono for the President to nominate an Asian American for ambassador to Japan in response to the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans.

Japan welcomes choice of new U.S. envoy due to his strong bonds with President

All national dailies wrote that as President Biden apparently has strong confidence in Rahm Emanuel, the veteran Washington insider will have direct channels of communication with the White House if he is confirmed as ambassador to Japan. Nikkei quoted an unnamed Democratic source as saying: “Mr. Emanuel can communicate directly with the President and his top deputies anytime.” The GOJ reportedly has high expectations for Emanuel on account of his strong bonds with President Biden and other key Democratic figures. Yomiuri quoted an unnamed senior Japanese diplomat as saying: “Emanuel will be an excellent liaison because he has direct channels of communication with the White House.”

Some Japanese officials bracing for Emanuel’s feisty style

Mainichi, Yomiuri, and Asahi noted that Rahm Emanuel is sometimes referred to as “Rahmbo” in the United States because of his “sharp tongue” and “feisty” political style, with Asahi claiming that some GOJ officials are bracing for his combative style as President Biden’s chief representative in Japan. Mainichi projected that as the U.S. administration wants Tokyo to play a larger role in deterring China’s pursuit of security and tech hegemony, Emanuel may show his “Rahmbo” side in pressing the Suga administration to take on greater security responsibilities.

SDF aircraft to be dispatched to evacuate Japanese stranded in Afghanistan

All national papers wrote on Monday that according to several GOJ sources, the Suga administration has informally decided to send an SDF transport plane to Afghanistan to evacuate Japanese aid workers and local staff members at the Japanese Embassy and the JICA and their dependents who remain stranded there. An official decision will be made today at a meeting of the National Security Council. Yomiuri said several dozen Japanese aid workers are still in the country. Sankei projected that the aircraft may depart Japan as early as tonight to ferry evacuees to Qatar.

Japan to concentrate on assisting Afghan refugees abroad for time being

Saturday’s Yomiuri said the GOJ plans to offer via the UNHCR and the World Food Program medical support, food, and other humanitarian assistance to Afghans fleeing to Iran based on the judgment that helping Afghan refugees stranded in their homeland will be difficult for the foreseeable future due to the turmoil there. In order to continue supporting displaced Afghan people inside the country, the GOJ is set to press the Taliban to ensure the safety of international aid workers who are still in Afghanistan.

Motegi holds talks with Iranian counterpart

All national papers wrote today from Tehran that visiting Foreign Minister Motegi held talks with his Iranian counterpart Zarif on Sunday and exchanged views on the Taliban’s renewed control of Afghanistan. The two officials agreed to enhance their bilateral coordination to prevent the Afghan situation from undermining stability in the Middle East. The Japanese minister called for Tehran’s return to the Iran nuclear agreement. Motegi later paid a courtesy call on President Raisi, urging him to act constructively to honor the country’s commitments made under the Iran nuclear deal.

U.S., Japan discuss North Korea

Saturday’s Sankei focused on a teleconference held between MOFA Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau Director General Funakoshi and U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Kim on Friday at which they exchanged views on the Korean Peninsula situation, including Pyongyang’s strong reaction to the U.S.-ROK joint military training. The two diplomats agreed to enhance their bilateral cooperation and trilateral coordination with Seoul in realizing DPRK denuclearization and resolving the abduction issue.

Japan considered holding informal session with Taiwanese cabinet minister

Sunday’s Sankei claimed in its top story that according to multiple GOJ sources, some members of the Suga cabinet were trying to convene an unofficial meeting in Tokyo with Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang on the margins of the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony in late July. However, the plan never materialized since the Taiwanese official chose not to visit Japan on account of the coronavirus resurgence. As relations between Japan and Taiwan are regarded as a “working partnership between non-governments,” the daily said if a ministerial meeting had been realized, it would have been a monumental development in the bilateral relationship. The paper added that the GOJ plan reflected the Suga administration’s attachment of importance to Taiwan in view of escalating cross-strait tensions and U.S.-Japan efforts to reduce their dependence on supply chains in China. Taiwan is a primary supplier of semiconductors for global markets.

France, Guam certify Japan’s vaccine passport

According to Saturday’s Nikkei, France and Guam have decided to exempt Japanese vaccine passport holders from quarantine requirements. In total, 21 nations and regions now accept Japan’s vaccine passports as documents enabling COVID-19 entry restrictions to be eased.


Opposition candidate wins Yokohama race, dealing blow to Suga

The Monday editions of all national dailies reported that former college professor Yamanaka, who was supported by the opposition camp, coasted to victory in Sunday’s Yokohama mayoral election, defeating seven other candidates, including former cabinet member Okonogi, who was backed by Prime Minister Suga, and incumbent mayor Hayashi. The results dealt a heavy blow to the embattled premier, who campaigned for Okonogi, one of his closest confidants, in the belief that winning the race in his home turf would be critical to ensuring his reelection in the LDP presidential race next month and the general election in the autumn. As the winner is a staunch opponent of the idea of Japan’s second largest city hosting an integrated resort featuring a casino, the outcome was also a setback for Suga’s signature policy initiatives to launch gambling facilities for local economic rejuvenation.

The papers speculated that many voters apparently considered the coronavirus pandemic, not the casino initiative, as the key campaign agenda item, noting that Yamanaka’s campaign gained momentum while that of Okonogi lost steam amid the relentless spike in infections in Yokohama as the ex-academic highlighted his accomplishments in combating the virus at the medical department of a local university until recently. As the public has been highly critical of the Suga administration’s response to the prolonged public health crisis, the papers conjectured that voters rejected the Suga-backed Okonogi because of the GOJ’s poor handling of the outbreak. According to exit polls, Yamanaka commanded support from 40% of independent voters, while Okonogi gathered only about 10%.

Suga’s reelection strategy suffers major setback

All national papers wrote that the results of the Yokohama mayoral race may trigger a major political crisis for the Suga administration as the prime minister’s grip on power is bound to further weaken since he failed to deliver a victory for a close political ally even in his home constituency. The defeat of Okonogi was the latest in a series of major election setbacks that the administration has suffered, including three parliamentary by-elections in April and the Tokyo metropolitan assembly race in July. As such, calls are likely to mount among LDP politicians, younger ones especially, for ousting the beleaguered leader ahead of the general election based on the assessment that their reelection bids would be in peril as long as the unpopular prime minister heads the ruling party.

Yomiuri speculated that the premier is still trying to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election, not in September as previously hoped for, but in early October by securing his reelection as LDP president uncontested in late September based on the assessment that the coronavirus situation will improve dramatically by then as the vaccine rollout proceeds apace. Although former Prime Minister Abe, Deputy Prime Minister Aso, and LDP Secretary General Nikai are apparently committed to supporting Suga’s second term as LDP leader, some LDP lawmakers may press former Foreign Minister Kishida to challenge the prime minister in the leadership race. Sankei claimed that Kishida is inclined to throw his hat into the ring.

Ishiba says he will not run in LDP presidential race

All national papers on Saturday highlighted remarks made on a TV show on Friday by former LDP Secretary General Ishiba suggesting that he will not run in the LDP presidential election likely to be held in late September. He also voiced doubts about some LDP politicians attempting to challenge Prime Minister Suga’s reelection bid amid the coronavirus pandemic. “We should think about how the voters would react if we moved to oust the prime minister because he is not qualified to be the party’s chief campaigner [for the general election],” he said.

Asahi wrote that internal bickering is intensifying within the LDP over whether somebody should run in the leadership race to unseat Suga, focusing on remarks made on Friday by former Foreign Minister Kishida, who underscored that the election presents the ruling party with a great opportunity to demonstrate to the public that it includes a wide range of talented politicians. The remark was interpreted to mean that he is opposed to the premier’s alleged desire to win a second term uncontested. Former Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Takaichi and LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Shimomura met with Secretary General Nikai separately on Friday and conveyed their interest in seeking the party presidency.

Administrative Minister Kono and Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Nishimura, both of whom have run in the party presidential election in the past, said on Friday that they do not intend to seek the post this time. Meanwhile, Environment Minister Koizumi expressed his support for Suga’s reelection bid on Friday by saying that if Suga had not been prime minister, Japan would have not been able to place high priority on renewable energy.


Japan to carry out joint training with Indian Air Force

Monday’s Sankei led with a report claiming that the ASDF is likely to conduct a joint drill with the Indian Air Force during this fiscal year, speculating that as the Indian side plans to mobilize its Sukhoi fighters, Japanese pilots will be able to engage in combat training with the Russian-made jets for the first time. As the PLA Air Force also uses the Sukhoi fighters, the papers said the planned drill will present the ASDF an opportunity to enhance its capability to deal with Chinese provocations in the airspace around the Japanese archipelago.

U.S. base worker indicted in Okinawa for attempted sexual assault

Saturday’s Asahi wrote that the Naha District Prosecutors’ Office filed charges on Friday against a U.S. military employee for attempted sexual assault in April. The prosecutors reportedly stopped short of disclosing whether or not the suspect has admitted the charges by saying that doing so would “stand in the way of the trial.” The base worker was also indicted in July on a separate charge of theft.

Defense Ministry to seek substantial spending on various projects

Saturday’s Mainichi wrote that the Defense Ministry plans to seek over 100 billion yen ($910 million) in FY2022 for the development of a new ASDF fighter that will replace the aging F-2 in the early 2030s. Lockheed-Martin and Rolls Royce will join a Japanese consortium led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to design and manufacture the stealth jet.

Meanwhile, Asahi wrote that the GSDF has called for the Defense Ministry to seek funding in the FY2022 budget for the procurement of two vessels for ferrying trucks and tanks for remote island defense, saying that this is the first time for an SDF branch other than the MSDF to secure funds for building ships. The GSDF is hoping to allocate some 10 billion yen ($91 million) for the ships, which will eventually be operated by a “sealift command” to be launched jointly by the GSDF and MSDF.

According to Sankei, the ministry is also expected to ask the Finance Ministry to earmark funds for increasing personnel at the Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency by over 100, including researchers for new defense technology, with the goal of reinforcing the foundation of the domestic defense industry, which has weakened considerably since some defense contractors have given up on doing business with the Defense Ministry due to thin profit margins.

Japan Coast Guard plane mobilized to survey islet near Hokkaido

Saturday’s Sankei wrote that the Japan Coast Guard tapped a research airplane to conduct an aerial survey of a tiny island off the coast of Hokkaido that is on the verge of submerging to check whether it can continue to be a point marking the national border. The plane was mobilized since the status of the outcrop can no longer be verified using satellite photos. The daily said the agency will conduct similar aerial research on 20 other outcrops located at the border around the country since the last detailed surveys of their status were conducted more than half a century ago. It added that updating the data on those remote islands is critical for national defense in view of China’s aggressive maritime advancement.


Less than 10% of COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals in Tokyo

The Saturday editions of all national papers spotlighted a meeting of public health professionals convened by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government on Friday at which the attendees expressed profound concern about the sudden spike in coronavirus infections and the severe strain being imposed on local healthcare capacities. The hospital admission rate for COVID-19 patients was about 9.5% as of Aug. 18, down almost 16 points from a month ago. As the positivity rate was 24%, the experts pointed to a likely shortage of PCR diagnostic tests and the high probability that many asymptomatic virus carriers are not being detected. According to Sunday’s Asahi, at least 18 patients who had been forced to recuperate at home due to the shortage of hospital beds have died in the Tokyo metropolitan area since early July, with nine of them being in their 50s or younger.

In a related article, Yomiuri wrote that public health centers managed by municipal governments have been overwhelmed by the relentless rise in infections in many parts of the country, including the Tokyo metropolitan area and Okinawa. Many of them have been forced to give up on conducting labor-intensive, time-consuming contact tracing except when dealing with major cluster infections. Experts are worried that many asymptomatic virus carriers will remain undetected as a result and inadvertently spread the disease.

More local government to launch “field hospitals” for COVID-19 patients

Sunday’s Asahi wrote that many local governments are running into difficulties tracking the health condition of the close to 100,000 coronavirus patients currently recuperating at home nationwide. They are concerned that there will be a sharp rise in the number of patients whose health condition suddenly deteriorates. As such, some municipalities are planning to launch makeshift field hospitals to accommodate such patients. Sankei said the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is mulling the idea of converting some of the Paralympic event venues into field hospitals to deal with the surging number of patients with mild or moderate symptoms.

GOJ to deliver additional Moderna vaccines to prefectures under state of emergency

All national papers reported on Saturday on the disclosure by Administrative Reform Minister Kono that large volumes of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine will be delivered to the 13 prefectural governments currently under a state of emergency so that they can speed up the vaccination of their residents.

In a related development, Health Minister Tamura disclosed on Friday that the GOJ is conducting discussions with Pfizer on importing some 120 million doses of its vaccine next year. “We need to ensure the steady procurement of vaccines since the virus mutates frequently,” he said.

Educators alarmed by growing rate of COVID-19 cases among children

Saturday’s Asahi and Nikkei wrote that school administrators across the nation are worried about the possibility of an explosive spread of the novel coronavirus in schools when the summer break ends in many parts of the country since cases among minors have been rising steeply since late July. While Education Minister Hagiuda stressed on Friday that the ministry has no intention to call for nationwide school closures, the educators are concerned that parents who have yet to be vaccinated will fall ill if cluster infections involving the highly transmissible Delta variant occur in schools. The Education Ministry plans to administer antigen test kits to elementary and middle schools to swiftly detect infection among students. Many education boards are prepared to roll out distance learning programs in the event that school closures are deemed unavoidable.

Nationwide governors’ group calls for city lockdowns

The Saturday editions of all national papers except Asahi reported that during a virtual meeting of the National Governors’ Association on Friday, the participants called for the declaration of a nationwide COVID-19 state of emergency based on the assessment that efforts by individual governors can no longer curb the spread of the virus even at the local level. They also asked for powerful measures to reduce traffic and people’s mobility, such as higher expressway tolls and city lockdowns. The Hokkaido, Aichi, Miyazaki, Niigata, and Iwate prefectural governments are reportedly asking the central government to place them under either a state of emergency or quasi-state of emergency.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team