Morning Alert   -   Wednesday, December 29, 2021
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Broadcasters led with reports on a cluster infection of the Omicron strain of COVID-19 in Osaka (NHK), missing mountain climbers in Hyogo (TV Asahi) and vandalism in Osaka (Fuji TV).

Lead stories in national papers included the GOJ’s failure to compile key business statistics electronically, a GOJ plan to criminalize the leakage of high technology such as artificial intelligence by private citizens to enhance economic security, ransomware attacks on hospitals across Japan since 2016, and public health experts’ recommendations on preventing the spread of Omicron.


Public health experts warn of potential rapid spread of Omicron

All national papers took up a warning issued on Tuesday by a Health Ministry advisory board made up of epidemiologists, virologists, and other health professionals that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus may have already spread to various parts of the country given the detection of multiple cases of community transmission of the variant. The board reportedly estimated that the emerging variant will become the predominant strain of the virus in mid-January. Noting that most of the 316 patients who have tested positive for the strain in Japan have had mild or no symptoms, the panel advised the public to thoroughly observe infection prevention protocols during the New Year’s holiday season to avoid contracting the virus without noticing it and spreading it to others. As the Omicron variant is extremely contagious, the health professionals expressed alarm that its rapid spread could cause a spike in infections and strain hospital capacities.

However, some experts reportedly urged the GOJ to change the current guideline requiring the hospitalization of all Omicron patients to avoid overwhelming hospitals during the holiday season when healthcare resources tend to be in short supply. They also recommended allowing people who have been in close contact with Omicron carriers to quarantine at home rather than in designated facilities. They also reportedly advised shortening the 10-day quarantine period for travelers arriving from overseas to 3 days.

The papers reported that Prime Minister Kishida held a meeting with relevant cabinet ministers on COVID-19, quoting him as telling the press afterward: “Optimism is not warranted about heading off the spread of the Omicron variant. I instructed cabinet members to act proactively while paying close attention to the infection situation during the holiday season.”

In a related development, all national dailies wrote that the nation’s first cluster infection caused by the Omicron strain was confirmed in Osaka on Tuesday, with three residents and two care workers at a nursing home testing positive. The prefecture reported a total of 51 COVID-19 cases overall yesterday, the highest number in almost seven weeks.

Rollout of COVID-19 boosters to be expedited

All national papers focused on remarks made to the press yesterday by Heath Minister Goto that elderly people will be able to receive their third doses of coronavirus vaccine shortly, saying that they may be able to receive them in January in some prefectures, two months earlier than originally planned.

In an interview with Kyodo on Tuesday, Prime Minister Kishida also hinted that the rollout of boosters for those other than the approximately 31 million healthcare providers and people aged 65 or older will be accelerated. The premier reportedly pledged to redouble the administration’s efforts to combat Omicron, which he referred to as a “mysterious enemy.”


Agriculture Ministry approves transplantation of coral reefs off Camp Schwab

All national dailies except Nikkei reported on an announcement made by the Agriculture Ministry on Tuesday that it has revoked the Okinawa governor’s rescindment of its permit for the Okinawa Defense Bureau to transplant coral reefs off Camp Schwab for the FRF construction. As a result, the bureau will be allowed to continue relocating some 40,000 colonies of small coral reefs in the vicinity through the end of June.

Abnormally high level of PFOS detected in water sampled at U.S. army facility

Asahi highlighted an announcement made by the Okinawa prefectural government on Tuesday regarding the detection of PFOS toxic chemical agents in water samples collected in June at the U.S. military oil storage facility in Uruma, saying that the level was almost 1,600 times higher than the permissible standard set by the GOJ. The release of the results of the water analysis was reportedly delayed by several months because the U.S. and Japanese governments did not give their consent.

Okinawa scholar indicted for interfering with U.S. military operations

Asahi reported that the Naha Prosecutors Office on Tuesday indicted a local academic on charges of forcible obstruction of business and violation of the road traffic law, explaining that the defendant allegedly disrupted the passage of U.S. military vehicles in front of the gate to the Northern Training Area by repeatedly scattering empty bottles and cans on the road earlier this year. He reportedly sabotaged operations because the GOJ neglected his pleas for disposing of waste abandoned by the U.S. military in the training area.

Citizens may be penalized for leaking sensitive data

Sankei led with the revelation by several GOJ sources that under the economic security legislation that the GOJ is currently drafting for submission to the Diet early next year, people in the private sector who have access to sensitive data and technology, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, may be punished if they leak such information to foreign agents. The GOJ will reportedly determine what constitutes sensitive data, which will be short of “specially designated secrets” as designated in the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets. The GOJ has reportedly concluded that strict measures must be taken to ensure economic security, including establishing provisions for penalizing private citizens, based on the belief that the leakage of state-of-the-art technology would have serious consequences for national security.


Japan to establish embassy in Kiribati, consular office in New Caledonia

Yomiuri highlighted MOFA’s plan to set up an embassy in Kiribati and a consular office in New Caledonia in FY2022 in order to monitor closely China’s rapid advancement in the South Pacific. As French troops are stationed in Nouméa, the GOJ is hoping that the presence of Japanese diplomats there will help strengthen bilateral defense coordination in view of France’s intention to play a greater role in achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific.


GOJ updates space program

According to Yomiuri, Asahi, and Nikkei, the GOJ Space Development Strategy Headquarters released a revised version of the nation’s space exploration program on Tuesday, expressing its commitment to sending Japanese astronauts to the moon in the latter half of the 2020s through NASA’s Artemis lunar development initiative. The document also called for greater public-private partnership for the development of a lunar rover and the launch of numerous small radar satellites by FY2025 aimed at building a robust space surveillance network.


Former top bureaucrat tapped as prime ministers’ advisor on national resilience

All national papers reported that the GOJ plans to appoint former Vice Minister for Land and Infrastructure Mori Masafumi as special advisor to the prime minister in charge of reconstruction and national resilience.

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team