Morning Alert   -   Thursday, December 16, 2021
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Broadcasters led with reports on the U.S. Federal Reserve’s decision to end its stimulus measures in March, three months earlier than previously planned, in light of rapid inflation (NHK), an incident in which a man barricaded himself in a restaurant in Chiba yesterday (NTV), confusion caused by the GOJ’s new policy on the 100,000-yen COVID-19 relief payments to families with children (TBS, Fuji TV), and an increase in accidents involving electric scooters (TV Asahi).

Main front-page stories in national dailies included the Kishida administration’s plan to increase the defense budget, the Defense Ministry’s moves to enable the SDF to conduct evacuation operations that only involve foreign nationals overseas, the GOJ’s admission in a civil suit of its responsibility for the suicide of a Finance Ministry official in connection with the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, and an update on the Land and Infrastructure Ministry’s tampering of data used in key statistics on the construction industry.


Japan’s defense budget to increase considerably

Nikkei led with the finding that the GOJ is making arrangements to substantially ramp up defense spending in line with the planned update a year from now of the five-year Midterm Defense Buildup Program. The GOJ is likely to earmark more than 30 trillion yen ($263 billion) for defense spending in the five-year period beginning in FY2023, up 10% from the current allocation, with the goal of enhancing deterrence in response to China’s robust military operations around Japan. This will reportedly be the first time for the five-year defense budget to exceed 30 trillion yen. The amount will not include spending for U.S. force realignment.

The daily explained that the increase will represent Tokyo’s commitment to strengthening its own defense capabilities as promised in the bilateral statement issued by President Biden and then-Prime Minister Suga in April, projecting that more funds will be allocated to procure state-of-the-art defense equipment, develop warships and fighter jets, and station new SDF units on remote islands in Okinawa and Kagoshima to prepare for the possibility of Chinese aggression. The GOJ also plans to commit a substantial amount of money to the defense of new domains, such as outer space and cyber space.

SDF to be allowed to conduct evacuation operations that only involve foreign nationals

Yomiuri gave top coverage to a GOJ plan to amend the SDF Law to enable the SDF to conduct evacuation operations that only involve foreign nationals during contingencies abroad, saying that local employees of Japanese diplomatic missions and JICA offices and their dependents will be covered under the envisaged rescue operations. Although a provision in the statute stipulates that foreign nationals can only be evacuated by SDF troops together with Japanese citizens, the SDF airlifted Afghans out of the country in response to a request from the United States on an emergency basis when the Taliban seized control of Kabul in late August. The GOJ has reportedly decided to revise the law to make such operations fully legal. As many Afghan allies and their family members have used commercial flights to escape to Japan, the paper said that if the law is amended as envisaged, it will be possible to use SDF aircraft for such operations.


U.S., Japan likely to convene “2+2” meeting in Washington on Jan. 7

Asahi projected that Foreign Minister Hayashi and Defense Minister Kishi will hold talks with Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Defense Austin in Washington on Jan. 7 in a “2+2” session. The daily added that before traveling to the U.S. capital, Hayashi might attend the NPT Review conference to be held at the UN Headquarters in New York beginning Jan. 4.

Hayashi comments on “diplomatic boycott” of Beijing Olympics

Sankei wrote that during a meeting on Wednesday with a conservative LDP lawmaker calling for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Foreign Minister Hayashi said: “We will decide on Japan’s position at an appropriate time while bearing in mind that the Olympic Games are a peaceful event.”


South Korea plans to file application for TPP membership by May

Asahi and Nikkei reported on remarks made on Wednesday by South Korean Deputy Prime Minister Hong Nam-ki, who said the ROK government will file an application for TPP membership before President Moon steps down in early May. The official reportedly said Seoul has already begun bilateral preparatory talks with the 11 member states and that many of them have welcomed South Korea’s bid. He added, however, that Japan is “not enthusiastic due to the existence of other problems,” suggesting that the bilateral history disputes and Tokyo’s tighter export control of Korea-bound products apparently stand in the way of Seoul joining the regional free trade deal. The paper added that the Moon administration is anxious to participate in the TPP out of concern that it may become isolated in East Asia on the trade front in view of the membership applications filed earlier by China and Taiwan.

Kishida pledges hefty investment in semiconductor production

Nikkei reported that Prime Minister Kishida sent a video message to an international symposium on semiconductors that opened in Tokyo on Wednesday. The premier reportedly stressed that the GOJ will team up with the private sector to invest over 1.4 trillion yen ($12.2 billion) to help Japanese and foreign companies produce semiconductors in Japan. “Semiconductors are one of the most important elements for realizing economic growth and scientific innovation,” the premier was quoted as saying in the video. “It’s important to reinforce the domestic foundation for the development and production of semiconductors, which are sensitive technology in terms of economic security.”


Health Ministry panel approves Moderna vaccine for booster shots

All national papers wrote that a Health Ministry taskforce on Wednesday approved on an emergency basis the use of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for booster shots, saying that third doses can be administered to people aged 18 or older at least eight months after receiving their second shots. The amount of vaccine in the booster shot will be half of that in the initial two doses. The Moderna product can also be used in people who received the Pfizer vaccine for their first two shots.

In a related development, Asahi and Yomiuri reported that the GOJ will allow certain people such as healthcare professionals, workers at elderly care facilities, and nursing home residents with underlying conditions to receive their booster shots six months after their second doses instead of eight months. Some 16 million people are likely to fall into this category. The GOJ has reportedly concluded that expediting the booster rollout is imperative to heading off the spread of the Omicron variant.

Fifteen more people test positive for Omicron strain in Japan

All national dailies took up a Health Ministry announcement yesterday that 15 additional cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed in Japan, bringing the total number of Omicron cases in the country to 32. All of the new patients tested positive in PCR tests conducted at their ports of entry and many of them were asymptomatic when they arrived in Japan from the United States, the UK, and Africa between Dec. 7 and 12.

In a related development, Nikkei wrote that according to the Philippine Department of Health, a local man in his 40s who returned from Japan on a Philippine Airlines flight on Dec 1 has tested positive for the Omicron strain. Details of his activities and contacts while in Japan are reportedly unknown.


Four LDP politicians emerge as leading candidates to succeed Kishida

Sankei reported on a mounting consensus within the LDP that the next party president to succeed Prime Minister Kishida will probably be either Secretary General Motegi Toshimitsu, Policy Research Council Chairperson Takaichi Sanae, Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa, or former Administrative Reform Minister Kono Taro. While Motegi’s clout is growing rapidly since he assumed the party’s No. 2 post, the daily projected that his future bid to take the helm depends largely on the Upper House race in July as he will be the ruling party’s chief election campaigner.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team