Morning Alert   -   Monday, December 27, 2021
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Broadcasters led with reports on the heavy snow along the coast of the Sea of Japan (NHK, NTV, TBS) and Japanese figure skater Hanyu Yuzuru’s victory in the men’s singles national championship on Sunday, which clinched him a spot at the Beijing Olympics (Fuji TV, TV Asahi).

Top items in national papers included GOJ efforts to help commercial firms raise wages for employees (Sankei), the Justice Ministry’s plan to revise the Penal Code so that hard labor at prison for convicts can be applied in a more flexible manner (Yomiuri), a range of measures taken by foreign governments to combat the Omicron strain of COVID-19 (Mainichi), local companies’ requirement for potential foreign hires with college degrees to have a good command of Japanese (Nikkei), and a report on minors who need to take care of disabled or ill family members (Asahi).


U.S. bases constitute “loophole” in Japan’s COVID-19 border controls

Friday’s Asahi reported on the COVID-19 cluster infection at Camp Hansen, emphasizing that since personnel from overseas can fly direct to Okinawa without adhering to Japan’s strict COVID-19 infection prevention protocols at ports of entry under the SOFA, the U.S. bases have effectively become a “loophole” in Japan’s effort to stave off the Omicron variant. The Okinawa prefectural government reportedly suspects that the new variant has already been brought into the island prefecture by service members from the U.S. mainland as they’ve been allowed to move around freely on base even during the quarantine period and did not wear masks after arriving at the installation. As the U.S. military does not have the capacity to check whether those who test positive for the virus are infected with the Omicron strain, the paper said the U.S. procedures are “out of sync” with Prime Minister Kishida’s pledge that “all COVID-19 patients in Japan will be tested to see whether they are infected with the latest strain.” Local authorities are reportedly afraid that community transmission originating from the U.S. facility has already begun to engulf the island prefecture. Sunday’s Mainichi ran a similar article.

In a related development, Saturday’s Yomiuri and Sankei highlighted the disclosure by Foreign Minister Hayashi on Friday that the U.S. military had not conducted PCR tests for Japan-bound personnel ahead of their departure since Sept. 3 following a guideline issued by the Pentagon that allegedly concluded that such testing was unnecessary because of the rapid rollout of vaccines for service members. “The two nations will strengthen their coordination to ensure that U.S. infection prevention measures are in sync with Japanese ones,” Hayashi was quoted as saying. Prime Minister Kishida reportedly complained about the absence of pre-departure testing on the part of the U.S. military by telling the press on Friday: “I want the U.S. military to deal with the matter appropriately and without fail.” According to the papers, the U.S. military reinstated such testing for Japan-bound personnel following the cluster infection at Camp Hansen.

Kishida displeased with U.S. failure to synchronize anti-COVID measures with Japan

TBS claimed on Saturday that Prime Minister Kishida was infuriated when he learned that no U.S. personnel bound for bases in Japan had undergone PCR tests prior to departure since September because he had believed that the U.S. military’s prevention protocols were “in sync” with Japan’s border controls. Following the detection of the cluster infection at Camp Hansen, MOFA bureaucrats had requested in mid-December that the U.S. military adopt tougher prevention protocols. Upon instructions from the premier, however, Japan chose to elevate the level of the protest, tasking Foreign Minister Hayashi with filing a protest and a request direct to USFJ Commander Rapp. The discovery that all Japan-bound service members were exempt from pre-departure testing since early September prompted an unnamed Kantei official to say: “We were duped. This is unacceptable.” Another senior Kantei official reportedly blamed MOFA for failing to check with the U.S. military about the status of infection protocols for Japan-bound personnel.

Camp Hansen service member arrested for DUI

Sunday’s Sankei wrote that the Okinawa police arrested a U.S. Marine belonging to Camp Hansen on midnight Saturday on the charge of driving under the influence of alcohol, saying that the incident flew in the face of intense Japanese calls for the U.S. military to tighten discipline among Camp Hansen community members in view of the large-scale COVID-19 cluster infection there.

Senior Kantei official visits Okinawa

Yomiuri, Sankei, and Mainichi reported today that Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kuryu visited Okinawa on Sunday and held talks with Ginowan Mayor Matsukawa. They confirmed greater coordination between the central and municipal governments for the swift reversion of MCAS Futenma and the mitigation of the base burden borne by residents. Kuryu visited the island prefecture to take part today in a tripartite meeting also involving the prefectural government on reducing the footprint of the Futenma base.

Sankei added that Kuryu’s trip was one of “pilgrimages” that senior Kishida administration officials have made since October ahead of the start of the “election year” of 2022 in the island prefecture where major elections are scheduled, including the Nago mayoral race in January and the gubernatorial race in the fall. As the GOJ is desperate to elect politicians who support Futenma relocation, the visiting officials have been keen to address local concerns, including about COVID-19 infections within the U.S. military.

GOJ allocates funds for base construction on Mageshima

Saturday’s Asahi wrote that the GOJ earmarked some 300 billion yen ($2.62 billion) in FY2022 for the construction of an SDF camp on the island of Mageshima in Kagoshima, saying that the funds were allocated despite opposition from a local municipal government to the proposed transfer of FCLP training involving U.S. military aircraft to the island.

U.S., Japan to enhance coordination to head off ransomware attacks

Sunday’s Yomiuri front-paged the disclosure by several GOJ sources that the U.S. and Japanese governments have decided to take coordinated steps to counter ransomware attacks from China and Russia based on the belief that such online incidents constitute a national security threat. The two sides are reportedly set to confirm during the upcoming virtual 2+2 foreign and defense ministerial meeting in early January greater sharing of relevant information and increased cooperation for developing know-how on identifying perpetrators and making commercial firms’ computer networks resilient.

JCG, MSDF conduct joint drill based on scenario of Senkaku contingency

Friday’s Yomiuri and Nikkei took up joint training held on Thursday off the coast of Izu Oshima Island by JCG cutters and MSDF destroyers, explaining that the drill was intended to counter Chinese potential aggression against the Senkaku Islands. The training was based on the scenario of JCG cutters alone being unable to defend against PLA warships approaching the disputed outcrops.

Russia voices concern about U.S.-Japan training in Hokkaido

Jiji reported on Saturday from Moscow on a statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry that it has conveyed concern to Japan about joint training conducted in Hokkaido earlier this month between the U.S. military and the SDF since it posed a “great challenge and potential threat” to the country’s national security on account of its size and geographical proximity to the Russian border.

MOD briefs local communities on aborted Aegis Ashore plan

Sunday’s Asahi wrote that the Defense Ministry recently held briefings for residents of the regions of Akita and Yamaguchi where the Aegis Ashore missile defense platform had been expected to be deployed at local SDF installations before the initiative was unilaterally canceled by then Defense Minister Kono 18 months ago. The daily said that although the officials providing the briefings repeatedly apologized, they failed to respond to queries from the participants on why their communities were chosen as candidate sites in the first place. The Akita residents were also reportedly upset that they were only given one briefing while the Yamaguchi residents received five.

Chinese aircraft carrier transits Miyako Strait

Today’s Mainichi and Sankei reported on an MOD announcement yesterday that a Chinese aircraft carrier passed through international waters between the main island of Okinawa and Miyako Island from the Pacific toward the East China Sea, saying that the flattop appeared to be heading home following the conclusion of seaborne training near small Okinawa islands a week ago.


Kishida unlikely to travel to U.S. in January

Saturday’s Nikkei and Yomiuri wrote that Prime Minister Kishida has concluded that it would be difficult to arrange a summit with President Biden in January due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in the U.S. and the Biden administration’s preoccupation with enacting the Build Back Better bill.

According to today’s Yomiuri, PM Kishida has also decided to forego traveling to New York in early January to attend the NPT Review conference due to the rise in Omicron infections in the U.S. Instead, he will deliver remarks remotely to highlight his lifelong commitment to nuclear disarmament.

U.S.-Japan 2+2 to be held virtually

Saturday’s Sankei and Yomiuri reported that a U.S.-Japan foreign and defense ministerial meeting scheduled for Jan. 7 in Washington will be convened remotely in response to a request from the Biden administration on account of the rapid spread of the Omicron strain of COVID-19 in the U.S. As a result, Foreign Minister Hayashi is likely to forego a separate plan to attend the NPT Review conference scheduled to start in New York on Jan. 4, according to Sankei. The daily said that since the meeting will not be held in person, the two governments will need to alter the format so that the relevant cabinet members and the ambassadors of each nation can sign the new bilateral agreement on Japan’s five-year host nation support for the U.S. military in their respective capitals.

Kishida eyeing trip to Australia

According to Friday’s Yomiuri, Prime Minister Kishida is considering visiting Australia in early January for a meeting with PM Morrison to demonstrate stronger bilateral relations and unity among the Quad partners. The Japanese leader reportedly plans to travel to Canberra since he has given up on traveling to the U.S. Kishida and Morrison are expected to sign a reciprocal access accord (RAA) for defense cooperation.

In a follow-up, the daily wrote today that in case Kishida elects not to visit Canberra on account of the Omicron variant situation at home and in Australia, the ambassadors of each nation will ink the RAA, which will facilitate the two militaries’ conducting trilateral training with U.S. forces. The paper added that Tokyo is also set to hold RAA talks with the UK and France.

Japan decides not to send diplomatic representatives to Beijing Olympics

The Friday editions of all national dailies reported on Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno’s announcement on Thursday that the GOJ will not send to the Beijing Winter Olympics Sport Agency Commissioner Murofushi or any other government officials and that President Hashimoto of the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee and JOC President Yamashita will participate instead. While saying that “it is important to ensure that such universal values as freedom, basic human rights, and the rule of law are guaranteed even in China,” the government spokesperson stressed that the Kishida administration made the decision “independently” while considering various factors. He did not call the nonparticipation a “diplomatic boycott,” saying that Japan does not intend to use a “specific phrase” to describe it. “We hope the Games will be convened as a peaceful event in line with the intention and spirit of the Olympiad,” he added.

Yomiuri said the GOJ chose to have Matsuno announce the decision out of concern that such a statement by Prime Minister Kishida would provoke China. The premier met with the press later that evening and echoed Matsuno’s remark that Japan made the decision “independently.” The dailies said Hashimoto’s attendance reflects the delicate balance that Tokyo is trying to maintain between Washington and Beijing, explaining that the GOJ is hoping China will not feel it has “lost face” since Hashimoto was a cabinet member in charge of the Tokyo Olympics.

Asahi wrote that former PM Abe pressed Kishida to announce a boycott sooner rather than later during a meeting on Wednesday by telling his successor: “Japan needs to take the lead among the democracies in Asia. It must declare [a boycott]. China will be upset anyway even if the announcement is made later.” The GOJ made the announcement the next day. “I’m glad that the premier made the decision before the end of the year,” Abe told the press following Matsuno’s announcement. “Japan has joined a coalition of the willing made up of those wishing to improve the human rights situation [in China].” The paper added that China “welcomed” Japan’s decision since the GOJ didn’t cite the human rights situation there as a reason for not sending a government delegation or use the term “diplomatic boycott.” “Besides, Japan expressed hope for the success of the Olympics as a peaceful event,” said an unnamed Chinese diplomatic source.

Mainichi wrote that the U.S. calls for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics are beginning to “lose steam” as many European countries have already elected not to take a concerted line with the U.S., the UK, Australia, and Canada.

U.S. enacts legislation to ban imports from Xinjiang

The Saturday editions of all national dailies reported from Washington that President Biden signed into law on Thursday a bill banning goods from China’s Xinjiang region on account of the abuse of Uyghurs’ human rights, saying the law represents stronger pressure on Beijing by the Biden administration, which has referred to the Chinese oppression of the Muslim minority group as “genocide.” Since the statute will go into effect in late June, the papers conjectured that Japanese and other international companies will be forced to review their existing contracts with businesses in Xinjiang. They wrote that Japanese companies are caught between the U.S. and China, with Asahi quoting one of them as saying: “Because the Chinese government has denied that forced labor is being used, we are concerned that a decision not to use Xinjiang products will ruin our business opportunities in China.”

Japan to limit exports of surveillance technology to protect human rights overseas

Friday’s Nikkei gave top play to a GOJ plan to restrict exports of technology that can be used to monitor dissidents in line with the U.S.-orchestrated “Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative.” The GOJ is reportedly looking to revise an existing ordinance to designate security cameras, facial and biometric personal identification systems, and equipment to intercept telecommunications as sensitive technology for which exports can be regulated under the Foreign Exchange Law to prevent human rights violations by foreign governments.

Efforts to enact Japanese version of Magnitsky Act stalled

Sunday’s Sankei led with a report on parliamentary moves to pass a Japanese version of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which allows the U.S. government to sanction foreign government officials believed to be human rights offenders, saying that the momentum has apparently waned under the Kishida administration even though an influential LDP lawmaker was tapped by the premier as a special advisor on human rights issues. The daily speculated that opposition to using sanctions as a tool to persuade foreign governments to correct certain behaviors remains strong within the GOJ, with MOFA officials being afraid that such an approach would alienate Vietnam, Thailand, and other ASEAN members and prompt them to side with China. Some are reportedly wary of singling out China as the target of the envisaged legislation, while others are concerned that such a law would “mandate” Japan to take coordinated steps with the U.S. and Europe in penalizing foreign government officials for human rights abuses.

Ruling parties of Japan, Taiwan convene high-level talks

Saturday’s Nikkei wrote that two senior LDP officials held virtual talks with their counterparts from Taiwan’s ruling Progressive Democratic Party on Friday, saying that the two sides agreed to cooperate to build resilient semiconductor supply chains. The LDP officials reportedly pledged Japan’s greater financial support to encourage Taiwanese firms to build computer chip plants in Japan. The daily said the LDP is keen to use the “2+2” framework between the ruling parties as a platform for deepening bilateral partnership since strengthening governmental exchanges is difficult under the “one-China” policy.


Community transmission of Omicron variant confirmed in five prefectures

All national dailies reported over the weekend that community transmission of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been detected in Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo, and Fukuoka, noting that as all 16 cases are unrelated, the variant appears to be spreading steadily. According to Monday papers, a woman and daughter in Aichi tested positive for the Omicron strain, with local authorities suspecting that they probably caught the virus in a community transmission.

Free COVID-19 tests to be provided to residents of certain prefectures

The Friday editions of all national papers took up a speech delivered in Tokyo on Thursday by Prime Minister Kishida, during which he said anyone who lives in prefectures where the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has already been detected will be able to receive PCR or antigen diagnostic tests free of charge. The premier stressed that the free testing is aimed at containing the spread of the emerging strain. Residents in Osaka, Kyoto, Okinawa, and Tokyo will reportedly be able to receive such tests if they wish. The dailies said the prefectural authorities will need to prepare for a surge in people wishing to receive tests by mobilizing every possible resource, such as tapping local pharmacies as platforms for handling testing kits and collecting samples.

Authorities running out of quarantine facilities for “close contacts” of Omicron patients

Yomiuri wrote on Friday that as more people have been testing positive for the Omicron variant of COVID-19 upon arrival in Japan, many prefectural governments are having difficulty securing rooms for quarantining passengers who were on the same flights as infected travelers since all of them are designated as “close contacts” irrespective of where they sat. The number of people categorized as close contacts jumped by 3,500 nationwide on Dec. 22 as a record 68 arrivals tested positive for the strain. Prefectural authorities are worried about a looming shortage of such rooms during the New Year’s holiday season.

Japan’s top epidemiologist urges public to exercise caution in year-end travel

Friday’s Asahi highlighted remarks made to the press on Thursday by Chairman Omi of the GOJ coronavirus taskforce subcommittee. He asked people to exercise caution in taking trips during the New Year’s holidays due to the gradual spread of the Omicron strain of COVID-19. He expressed alarm about the community transmission of the variant in Tokyo and elsewhere, warning of the possibility of hospital capacity becoming strained on account of its highly transmissible nature.

On Friday, Prime Minister Kishida also called for the public to think twice about traveling during the holiday season. “I want people to carefully reconsider their travel plans,” he was quoted as saying. “I will forego my plan to travel to my hometown of Hiroshima.”

Japan authorizes emergency use of oral COVID-19 drug

The Saturday editions of all national dailies reported that the Health Ministry on Friday approved the use of a COVID-19 pill called Molnupiravir manufactured by Merck on an exceptional basis, saying that the medication will be made available to patients as early as Sunday. Japan has already secured 1.6 million doses of the drug in the hope of mitigating the potential strain on hospitals by enabling patients with minor symptoms to recuperate at home.

Japan secures additional 18 million doses of Moderna vaccine

Saturday’s Asahi focused on the Health Ministry’s announcement that it has agreed with Moderna to purchase some 18 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine in the first three months of next year, saying that the additional doses will be used as booster shots for people other than healthcare providers and the elderly.


Cabinet support rises

Monday’s Nikkei front-paged the results of its latest public opinion survey that put support for the Kishida cabinet at 65%, up 4 points, and nonsupport at 26%, down one point. Almost seven out of ten approved of the premier’s decision not to send a government delegation to the Beijing Winter Olympics. Some 43% called for the accelerated rollout of COVID-19 boosters.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team