Welcome to the first Weekly Observer newsletter! This weekly newsletter aims to provide readers with the latest domestic and foreign policy news from Japan.
For the time being, it will include several sections: COVID-19, foreign & defense policy, domestic politics, elections, other noteworthy news, and public opinion polls.
The newsletter is suited for readers at all levels of engagement with Japan—from students and average readers interested in Japan to scholars looking for citations on current news.
The English version will be published on Friday U.S. time, while the Japanese version will come out over the weekend. A shorter version (English only) will be attached at the top of every newsletter (below this paragraph for this week).
I sincerely hope this newsletter will motivate people to get more involved with politics and get readers interested in the latest developments from Japan.
I. News of the Week
1. Prime Minister Urges People to Stay at Home
- Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday urged citizens to avoid unnecessary travel during the long holiday starting on Saturday. Data shows travelers leaving Tokyo grew 45 percent from the same holiday season last year, with those heading to Okinawa doubling this year.
- Suga was cautious about including Gifu and Mie prefectures, which requested to be put under pre-emergency measures (man-en bōshi-tō jūten sochi), under stricter measures saying it was too early to tell whether current measures were working.
- The government decided Friday it will issue ¥500 billion (≈$4.6 billion) from the supplementary budget in the form of extraordinary grants to prefectures to finance subsidies for local businesses. It also announced compensation of up to ¥25 million for every event held by art, culture and sports organizations.
2. First Week Into the Third State of Emergency
- Reports on Friday say a passenger aboard Japanese cruise ship Asuka II had tested positive for COVID-19, which will force the ship to return to port on Saturday. There are concerns it is similar to the Diamond Princess case last February, in which the government failed to contain the outbreak to the ship.
- National daily cases topped 5,000 at one point this week, with Tokyo and Osaka registering 1,027 and 1,260 cases respectively. The Japan Medical Association recommended lifting the emergency once daily cases in Tokyo drop below 100.
- Japan’s COVID-19 death toll topped 10,000 on Monday, with 80 percent of deaths occurring since the beginning of the “third wave,” which was last December. The government on Wednesday added four U.S. states, India and Peru to join 29 countries and areas subject to stricter quarantine measures.
- Healthcare systems across the country are grappling with overcrowding. In Hyogo, about 1,500 people are on the waitlist to be admitted to hospitals. The prefecture agreed Wednesday with Tottori to transfer people with low- to moderate-level symptoms to the latter. The government will dispatch 120 nurses to Osaka, which faces a severe shortage in hospital beds and health care staff.
- Kyodo reported Wednesday that bullet train reservations with JR East for the Golden Week period (4/28-5/5) increased 4.2 percent from before the declaration of a state of emergency, putting into question the effectiveness of government policies in reducing “unnecessary” travel.
- An NHK article on Tuesday projected that as things stand, a “fifth wave” in the fall in Tokyo could lead to as much as 3,000 daily cases due to the variant strains and the relatively slow vaccination pace.
- Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said Monday that 21 cases of the “double mutant” strain from India were detected. This strain contains two different mutations and could be more infectious than other strains.
3. Vaccine Rollout
- Suga asked the Japan Medical Association and the Japan Nursing Association on Friday to help marshal all the resources necessary to complete vaccination of the elderly by the end of July. The government plans to increase subsidies for vaccinations administered outside of regular working hours.
- Vaccine czar Taro Kono said Friday that the government has notified municipalities across the country that vaccine supply to administer two shots for the elderly will be distributed by the end of June.
- Kono said Thursday on a TV program that he has heard a highly anticipated domestic vaccine may be approved sometime this year.
- Kono said Wednesday at a Lower House Cabinet Committee session that Japan is considering introducing vaccine passports to make it easier to travel abroad. The plan, also recommended by the Japan Business Federation, is for travelers to have an app used to scan a QR code before boarding a flight.
- Suga on Tuesday instructed Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi to prepare mass vaccination sites in Tokyo and Osaka to expedite the vaccination process. The plan is for medically trained SDF personnel to administer the vaccines for three months starting May 24. Operating hours will be between 8 a.m.-8 p.m. every day of the week including weekends and holidays.
- An LDP working group on Tuesday submitted a proposal to the government demanding complete vaccination of all citizens above the age of 16 by the fall. Among other things, the group suggested the government work to prepare an environment where vaccinations could continue throughout the entire day.
- Kono said Monday night on a TV program that the government plans to use the Moderna vaccine for state-run mass vaccination sites. The first batch arrived Friday. The health ministry said Tuesday that approval may come as early as May 20.
- The government also plans to provide financial aid for and ask local clinics and other institutions to set aside hours during weekdays and holidays to expedite vaccination.
Foreign & Defense Policy
4. Japan’s Releases its Diplomatic Bluebook
- The Ministry of Foreign Affairs released its annual Diplomatic Bluebook on Tuesday, which emphasized concerns over China’s various activities.
- The report says unilateral Chinese military activities to change the status quo pose “strong concerns” in the region and the world, which was phrased “common concern” in last year’s edition.
- The report also criticizes China’s coast guard law, calls intrusions into waters around the Senkaku islands a violation of international law, and voices concern over human rights violations in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It does not mention Chinese activities around Taiwan.
- The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday strongly criticized the report, with a spokesperson saying it deliberately exaggerated China’s threat and unfairly interfered with its internal affairs.
- The South Korean Foreign Ministry summoned Hirohisa Soma, a deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, on Tuesday to protest the report’s claims that the Takeshima/Dokdo islands belonged to Japan and that the wartime labor and “comfort women” issues had already been resolved.
5. Japan-U.S. Developments
- The Ministry of Defense announced last Friday a Japan-U.S.-France joint exercise would be held in Kyushu between May 11-17. It is the first time the French military will participate in an exercise on Japanese soil.
- The Asahi report suggests the trilateral exercise will take place to strengthen cooperation between the sides amid growing concerns over China’s assertiveness.
- A total of 220 personnel—100 JGSDF, 60 U.S. Marines, and 60 French army—will take part in transportation/deployment using Osprey aircraft and urban warfare training.
6. Japan-China Developments
- China on Thursday amended its Maritime Traffic Safety Law which enables the Maritime Safety Administration to order foreign vessels to leave its territorial waters, including around the Senkakus, if it judges that it could threaten stability.
- Beginning September 1, the maritime agency, not to be confused with the coast guard, can also block foreign vessels from intruding into its waters as well as impose a fine between ¥840,000 and ¥8.4 million (≈$77,145).
- A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman criticized Japan’s decision to rule the term “military comfort women” inaccurate, saying it shows Tokyo is trying to avoid its responsibilities for past actions during World War II.
- The Foreign Ministry lodged a formal protest with China over the map of Okinawa and the Senkaku islands it published on Monday.
- China’s Ministry of Natural Resources created the maps based on satellite imagery and other survey results. Reports suggest the Chinese uploaded the map to reiterate its claims over the islands.
7. Other Policy Developments
- Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato said Friday that given the dire COVID-19 situation in India, Japan is prepared to provide 300 respirators and oxygen concentrators for free.
- Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi met with his Slovenian counterpart on Friday and discussed cooperation on achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) as well as in the high-tech sector such as AI and cybersecurity. Motegi announced Tuesday that he would be travelling to the U.K., Poland, Slovenia and other European countries between April 29-May 8.
- Defense Minister Kishi and Canada’s Minister of National Defense Harjit Sajjan spoke online Wednesday to discuss concerns over China’s military assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, the coast guard law, and cooperation on achieving a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).
- The government decided Tuesday that the term “military comfort women (jūgun ianfu)” used in textbooks to describe South Korean “comfort women” may lead to misunderstandings. It said just “comfort women” was more appropriate and also that the military had not forcibly taken the women away.
- The government announced Tuesday that it would be providing ¥4.2 billion (≈ $38.6 million) in emergency grant aid to 31 countries in Latin America and Africa to promote vaccination in developing countries. The government has already pledged ¥4.5 billion to Southeast Asia in an effort to develop “cold chains,” or a system for distributing the vaccines at low temperatures.
- The British Embassy in Tokyo announced Monday that the U.K. aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will lead a flotilla of ships for the first time through the South China Sea and make port calls to Japan, South Korea, India and Singapore.
- Suga and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke Monday, discussing a range of issues from Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas to further cooperation among the Quad to bilateral cooperation in cybersecurity, decarbonization, 5G networks and supply chain diversification.
- Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato told reporters Monday that Japan welcomes the ASEAN statement saying the bloc will send a special envoy to Myanmar to facilitate dialogue between those involved.
8. Economic Security
- Hiroshi Mikitani, CEO of Rakuten, said Friday that he did not understand why people were making a big fuss about Chinese company Tencent’s 3.6 percent stake in the company. Though there are concerns of information leaks, Mikitani denies that Tencent will have any say in the company’s decision making.
- Yomiuri reported Tuesday that Japan plans to establish its version of America’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) around 2023 in a bid to strengthen research on dual use advanced technologies.
- The new research institute will be housed in the Cabinet Office and will work with the National Security Agency, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. It is part of a series of actions aimed at bolstering economic security.
- The Cooperation and Development Dialogue was held on April 25 in China, where governments and businesses from Japan, China and South Korea promoted economic cooperation. Despite tensions between the countries, China expects to continue working with Japan economically.
- A total of sixty people from Japanese companies such as Panasonic, Canon and Mitsui Co., as well as some from municipal governments joined the conference.
9. Diet Proceedings
- The revised National Referendum Law, which establishes the election rules to amend the Constitution, may be put up for a vote in the Lower House Commission on the Constitution on May 6 and passed in the Lower House on May 11.
- The main opposition CDP agreed Thursday to vote on the bill if its supplementary provision on fair ad regulation is included in the submitted legislation.
- The Upper House Commission on the Constitution held an open discussion on Wednesday about the National Referendum Law for the first time in three years. The CDP and JCP believe it is not a priority to discuss during the pandemic.
- The 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership was passed by the Upper House on Wednesday. The deal covers 30 percent of the world’s population/GDP and will take effect sixty days after six out of ten ASEAN states and three out of five other countries ratify it.
- The ruling coalition and opposition reached an agreement Tuesday to hold a session of intense deliberation (shūchū shingi) on May 10 to discuss the government’s coronavirus response with Suga in attendance.
- Japan plans to regulate online advertising as early as next April under the law requiring information technology companies to be more transparent amid concerns industry giants are taking advantage of their market share to mistreat merchants who display ads on their platforms.
10. State of the Economy
- Data from Teikoku Databank released Friday shows the number of companies that went bankrupt since last February reached 1,400, with a rapid increase to 100 cases in the last two weeks. Eateries have suffered the most during the pandemic.
- The jobs-to-applicants ratio (yūkō kyūjin bairitsu) in March was 1.10, improving slightly from last month. However, job openings have declined for the fifteenth consecutive month compared to the ratio in March last year.
- Researchers at the University of Tokyo released data Wednesday that shows Tokyo’s economic losses could range between ¥2.6 trillion (≈$24 billion) to ¥3.5 trillion (≈$34 billion) depending on when the state of emergency is lifted. The data shows losses would be minimized in both Tokyo and Osaka if the state of emergency is lifted once daily cases are below 100.
- Data from Nomura Research Institute released last Friday shows the economic losses from the three state of emergencies and the stronger pre-emergency measures (man-en bōshi-tō jūten sochi) was ¥13.9 trillion (≈$128 billion), or around 2.5 percent of annual nominal GDP (October-December 2020).
- The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare released data Wednesday that shows 3,824 people were homeless in January, the least since the survey began in 2003. Reports suggest government policies to support those in dire financial situations led to the results. Osaka had 990 homeless people, the most in the country.
- At a Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy meeting on Monday, Suga said he looks to draw up plans for fiscal consolidation by the summer. The Cabinet Office’s projections for the fiscal deficit grew from ¥8.4 trillion to ¥40.1 trillion (≈$367 billion).
11. Other Economic Developments
- Reports Friday suggest Panasonic plans to shift production of small and midsize TVs to Chinese home appliance maker TCL Corp. The company aims to focus on larger, high-end products as it struggles to compete with Chinese and South Korean rivals. Production in India and Vietnam is expected to end this year.
- The BOJ published its quarterly outlook report Tuesday, in which the central bank revised down its inflation projections for the current FY to March 2022.
- Despite ten years of monetary easing, consumer inflation is projected to remain below the two percent goal Governor Kuroda set. His term ends March 2023. Real GDP is projected to grow 4 percent in FY 2021 and 2.24 percent in the next year as people get vaccinated and resume normal activities.
- Nomura Holdings on Tuesday said its losses related to transactions with the now collapsed Archegos Capital Management amounted to ¥307 billion (≈$2.87 billion). It led to the first quarterly loss for Nomura in a year.
12. Three Months Left Until the Olympic Games
- Suga said Friday he is confident the government can find health care workers to dispatch to the games without it interfering with care for COVID-19 patients.
- Reports suggest the organizing committee is preparing to designate thirty hospitals for athletes who come down with the virus, as well as asked the Japan Nursing Association to dispatch 500 nurses for the games.
- The government also plans to have at least 10,000 health care workers on site during the games and available 24 hours of the day for testing and check-ups. The question is how to get doctors and nurses to work for the games while healthcare systems are being overwhelmed across the country.
- The IOC published its second playbook Wednesday, a sixty page document that provides insight into what to expect in terms of COVID-19 countermeasures. Among other measures, athletes can train from day one but will be required to undergo daily tests, and must avoid using public transportation.
- Seiko Hashimoto, the organizing committee’s president, said Wednesday that while she anticipates the possibility of hosting the games without spectators, the final decision on the number of spectators will be made in June.
- Shigeru Omi, head of the government’s COVID-19 expert panel, said the same day that it is time to discuss whether the games should be held.
- IOC President Thomas Bach said Wednesday that “the resilience of the Japanese people makes Olympics possible under difficult circumstances.”
13. The LDP Sweeped in Suga’s First Nationwide Elections
- The LDP lost its first national elections under Suga in Hiroshima, Hokkaido and Nagano. While the latter two were expected losses, the Hiroshima re-election for ex-Upper House lawmaker Anri Kawai’s seat was a blow given the prefecture is historically a part of the party’s base.
- According to NHK’s exit polls, around 20 percent of LDP supporters turned on the party and voted for the opposition candidate in the Hiroshima race. These results are likely to push back Suga’s plans to call a snap election before the Olympics.
- Suga on Monday “humbly accepted” the results, vowing to correct any issues voters have with the party. The results also impact Fumio Kishida’s prospects of winning the LDP presidential election in September, given Hiroshima is his faction’s home base.
- Rumors suggest former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may run for the presidency again. Abe remained behind the scenes while the public scrutinized the cherry blossom scandal, but he has since intensified activities in conservatives circles such as being appointed adviser to an LDP commission on the Constitution.
- The LDP and Komeito reaffirmed their commitment to electoral cooperation on Tuesday, following the triple defeat over the weekend. The two parties hope to regroup before the Tokyo Assembly election in July and the snap election.
- On the other hand, the leaders of the CDP and JCP met Tuesday to discuss further cooperation in the upcoming snap election. The leaders acknowledged that unifying behind one candidate worked well this time, and that they should work together to unify behind a candidate in as many districts as possible.
- The Democratic People’s Party leader Yuichiro Tamaki said Wednesday that his party will not join the coalition unless the JCP leaves. He cited policy differences will cause problems if the opposition wins a majority.
14. Mixed Results for LDP in Local Elections
- A glimmer of hope for the LDP was the Uruma City election in Okinawa. On Sunday, the LDP-backed candidate Masato Nakamura defeated Hiroyuki Teraya, the candidate backed by Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki and the All Okinawa movement.
- With this victory, the LDP have now won two-of-three battles with Governor Tamaki ahead of the gubernatorial election next fall. The LDP wants to win the governorship to proceed with the U.S. base relocation.
- The LDP lost the Nagoya City mayoral election on Sunday, with incumbent Takashi Kawamura winning a fourth term.
- The incumbent beat the odds, defeating Toshiaki Yokoi, a candidate backed by the LDP, Komeito, CDP and the DPP. Kawamura is also at odds with the governor of the prefecture who did not congratulate him on his victory.
Other Noteworthy News
- Fukui Approves Nuclear Plant Restart: Three nuclear power plants at the Mihama and Takahama plants in Fukui prefecture will become the first in the country to operate beyond the forty-year limit after the governor agreed to the restarts. The forty-year limit was introduced after the Fukushima disaster, due to concerns that aging reactors were prone to accidents. The government hopes to restart nuclear plants in order to meet its goals of achieving carbon neutrality. Japan paid ¥2.5 billion ($22 million) in subsidies to revitalize the Fukui economy per nuclear plant. But concerns remain among local communities over safety, the effectiveness of evacuation plans and how to dispose of spent nuclear fuel.
- Fukushima Decommissioning Plan Approved: The Nuclear Regulation Authority on Wednesday approved Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings’ (TEPCO) decommissioning plan for Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant. The company aims to complete the four-stage decommissioning process in FY 2064. The cost to dismantle the plant is estimated at ¥282.2 billion (≈$2.6 billion). In addition, about 10,000 nuclear fuels in the spent fuel pool will be removed over 22 years from the start of work and transferred to companies that reprocess them for reused fuel.
- Government Sets Guidelines for LINE Use: The government crafted guidelines for use of LINE by its ministries and agencies on Friday. The guidelines stipulate that when dealing with sensitive information, data must be stored outside of LINE’s database. The communications ministry had ordered Monday for LINE to take measures to protect user information after Chinese affiliates were found to have accessed data without the knowledge of users. The administrative guidance requires a report in May as well. Last Friday, the government’s Personal Information Protection Commission issued a separate guidance and asked LINE to submit improvement plans within a month to provide a sufficient surveillance system, although it ruled there was no clear violation of the personal information protection law. LINE says data stored in South Korea will be transferred to Japan.
II. Public Opinion Polls
- A Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll released on April 25 showed a 47 percent approval rating for the Suga cabinet, up 2 percent from March. (ENG/JPN)
- 50 percent of respondents approved of the Japan-U.S. summit held on April 16, while 32 percent disapproved.
- 74 percent of respondents supported Japan’s engagement toward stability in the Taiwan Strait, while 13 percent were opposed.
- 80 percent of respondents who identified as LDP supporters favored engagement; 70 percent of respondents who identified as Komeito supporters said the same; and 77 percent of respondents who identified as opposition supporters also favored the approach.
- 74 percent of respondents older than 60, 80 percent of respondents in their forties and fifties, and 69 percent between 18-39 supported engagement.
- 30 percent of respondents approved of the government’s coronavirus response, down 8 percent from March, while 65 percent disapproved (highest to date), up 10 percent.
Image: Captain76 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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