The Weekly Observer: July 26-30

Condensed Ver. (usually around 1/2 of online ver.)
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I. News of the Week


Useful COVID-19 Resources (most are updated daily):

1. State of Emergency Expanded to Include Greater Tokyo Area and Osaka

  • The government decided Friday to expand the state of emergency currently in place in Tokyo and Okinawa to Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama and Osaka prefectures.

  • All six prefectures will be under a state of emergency until August 31. Hokkaido, Ishikawa, Kyoto, Hyogo and Fukuoka will be placed under pre-emergency measures (man-en bōshi-tō jūten sochi), a step below a state of emergency.

  • This comes on the heels of Japan topping 10,000 daily cases nationwide. On Thursday, Tokyo reached a record-high of 3,865 cases, followed by Kanagawa (1,164), Osaka (932), Saitama (864), Chiba (576) and Okinawa (392).

  • Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Friday that he is prepared to make this the last state of emergency. He also told reporters on Thursday that he did not believe the Olympic Games had caused the spike in cases.

  • The health ministry’s expert panel reported Wednesday that Japan is experiencing an “unprecedented spread of the virus” across the nation. It also said that the “delta” strain and a rapid increase in people’s movement are causing the spread. 

  • Data from Wednesday shows that case numbers nationwide increased 1.54 times from the week leading up to Tuesday. Ten of the eleven regions (besides Hokkaido) placed under the new measures experienced higher rates this week.

  • Cases per 100,000 people also reached “Stage Four” (highest alert level: 25 cases per 100,000 people) in the last week in Tokyo (59.33 last week → 88.63 cases this week), Okinawa (38.47 → 82.59), Kanagawa (33.20 → 45.44), Saitama (26.93 → 42.57), Chiba (26.67 → 39.51), Ishikawa (38.05) and Osaka (36.33). Only five prefectures registered “Stage Four” numbers in last week’s count. 

2. Experts Predict Further Increase in Cases

  • On Friday, some members of the government’s coronavirus expert panel called for the consideration of legislation that will enable the government to introduce a lockdown. Prime Minister Suga said later in the day that a lockdown isn’t the suitable solution and that the only way forward is pushing the vaccination drive.

  • Following the rapid increase in cases, nine medical organizations including the Japan Medical Association issued a statement Thursday calling on the government to declare a nationwide state of emergency and complete vaccination of those between the ages of 40-64, who increasingly account for a higher proportion of total cases.

  • Government data shows that those in their twenties and thirties make up roughly half of total new cases, while only accounting for 10 percent of severe cases. Half of severe cases are now accounted for by those in their forties and fifties

  • Shigeru Omi, head of the government’s expert panel, said at Thursday’s out-of-session Diet examination that, without a common sense of crisis across society, numbers will continue to increase and worsen the burden on medical institutions

  • According to government data, as of Wednesday, only 47 percent of Tokyo’s hospital beds set aside for COVID-19 are occupied, but 64 percent of beds for patients with severe symptoms are already occupied.

  • The Tokyo Metropolitan Government added that, as of Thursday, 3,039 patients are hospitalized due to COVID-19, double the amount from a month ago. Those resting at home also reached 8,477 people. Both reached the same level as during the “third wave” half a year ago. 

  • The TMG’s expert panel expects 2,962 cases on a seven-day average next week, and 4,532 cases in two weeks if case numbers continue to increase as is.

  • Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike stressed Thursday that a breakdown of case tallies by age paints a very different picture from the peak of the “third wave” in January.

  • She stated that the vaccination drive had successfully reduced the number of cases among the elderly, while younger age groups accounted for higher rates due to their activeness and lack of vaccination.

  • Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of economic revitalization, pointed out the same trend as Koike, saying younger individuals are more likely to dismiss the coronavirus as “just a cold”.

3. Government Approves Use of AstraZeneca Vaccines for Those Above Forty

  • The Cabinet Office reports that, as of Friday, around 84 million shots have been administered across the country. Of the total population, 38 percent have been vaccinated once, while 28 percent have been vaccinated twice.

  • Tokyo Governor Koike hinted Friday that the TMG is considering setting up vaccination sites in downtown areas where younger citizens are gathering. Individuals can get vaccinated without a reservation as long as they bring their vaccine tickets.

  • The health ministry decided Friday to approve the use of AstraZeneca vaccines for those above forty years old. The original plan was to use it for those above the age sixty, but new data on the safety of the vaccine and international age standards for it have prompted the government to lower the age restrictions.

  • The government hopes to accelerate the pace at which it vaccinates those in their forties and fifties, who account for a higher portion of case numbers turning severe each week.

  • Municipalities and businesses conducting vaccinations had also been asking for the AstraZeneca vaccine to be approved for use following a delay in the distribution of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines from the government.

Foreign & Defense Policy

4. Japan-U.S. Relations

  • Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi had a phone call with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Friday, in which Kishi welcomed the U.S.’s deepening involvement in the security of Southeast Asia, as well as confirmed the need to further strengthen Japan-U.S. cooperation to achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific.

  • Kishi also said Friday that the defense ministry will request U.S. cooperation to conduct a landing and takeoff test for the state-of-the-art F-35B stealth fighters off of aircraft carrier JS Izumo by the end of the year.

  • On Wednesday, Takehiro Funakoshi, the director-general of the foreign ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, spoke on the phone with U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim.

  • The two welcomed the restoration of the hotline between South and North Korea on Tuesday as a step toward improving relations.

  • The two also confirmed bilateral and trilateral cooperation with South Korea to resolve issues including North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and the abduction issue.

5. Japan-U.S.-Taiwan Lawmakers Hold Inaugural “Strategic Dialogue”

  • The cross-party Japan-Republic of China Diet Members’ Consultative Council (Nikkakon) held an inaugural “strategic dialogue” online between Japanese, U.S. and Taiwanese lawmakers on Thursday.

  • Participants included the council’s chair and LDP lawmaker Keiji Furuya, former U.S. ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty, Senator Ed Markey and You Si-kun, president of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan.

  • Lawmakers from the LDP, Komeito, the Constitutional Democratic Party, Democratic People’s Party and Japan Innovation Party were also present. Former prime minister Shinzo Abe was in attendance as a special guest.

  • According to Nikkei, the discussion focused on responding to Chinese military pressure, promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific, possible U.S. and Taiwan accession to the CPTPP and Taiwan joining WHO as an observer. Chairman Furuya told reporters that the main topic of discussion during the closed-door part of the session were security issues

  • Former prime minister Abe, who serves as an adviser of Nikkakon, spoke about the threat China poses on Taiwan’s democracy, saying “what happened in Hong Kong must never happen in Taiwan.”

  • He added that he finds China’s unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas concerning. He called on the U.S. and Taiwan to joint CPTPP and expressed support for Taiwan to join the WHO as an observer.

  • Former ambassador and Republican lawmaker Bill Hagerty praised Abe’s promotion of a free and open Indo-Pacific to enhance regional order and called on the Biden administration to sign a trade agreement with Taiwan.

  • You Si-kun, president of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, said that China is trying to divide Taiwan by making military threats and spreading false information. He said that “Taiwan needs to gain friends from democratic nations such as the U.S. and Japan.

  • The group will deepen cooperation by setting up separate forums for discussion on themes such as security, intellectual property rights and human rights. 

  • Meanwhile, Sankei reported Wednesday that Abe indicated an interest in traveling to Taiwan once the pandemic subsides to visit former president Lee Teng-hui’s grave site on the anniversary of his death. Abe said no other leader thought of Japan as much as Lee. The Taiwanese foreign ministry and You Si-kun welcomed this development. 

6. Russian Prime Minister Visits Northern Island Claimed by Japan 

  • On Monday, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin stepped foot on Etorofu Island (Northern Territories), land which is claimed by Japan

  • This came after President Vladimir Putin ordered Mishustin to prepare a new proposal for joint economic activity on the four Northern Territories last Friday.

  • The so-called “unprecedented proposal” (according to Putin) is viewed as a move by Russia to achieve a breakthrough in negotiations over a peace treaty and what it views as a territorial dispute with Japan over the territories.

  • Following Mishustin’s landing on the island, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi issued a statement which called the move unacceptable, incompatible with Japan’s position on the territories and hurtful to the public sentiment. 

  • The same day, Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Mori summoned Russian Ambassador to Japan Mikhail Galuzin to protest strongly against the move.

  • Lawmakers of the ruling party also criticized the move at its Foreign Affairs Division meeting on Thursday. Some also called out the foreign ministry for using the term “visit” (hōmon) instead of “(illegal) landing” (jōriku) in Motegi’s statement. 

  • The foreign ministry remains skeptical that the new proposal will yield anything, calling it a “usual move” by the Russian government. Skeptics also point out that Russia amended its constitution in July 2020 to ban ceding of territory to other countries, as well as the fact that it has conducted military exercises in the territories.

7. Foreign Policy Developments 

  • Foreign Minister Motegi said at a press conference on Friday that he will be attending the Japan-ASEAN and ASEAN+3 (Japan, South Korea, China) Foreign Ministers Meeting on August 3, the East Asia Summit on August 4, and the Mekong-Japan Foreign Ministers Meeting on August 6 next week. 
    • ASEAN+3: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea and China
    • East Asia Summit (EAS): ASEAN + Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the U.S.
    • Mekong countries: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

  • He plans to have a discussion on ways to deepen cooperation with Southeast Asian countries to achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific, as well as the dispatch of a special envoy to Myanmar to help defuse the crisis caused by the coup

  • On Wednesday, Prime Minister Suga delivered a video message in commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and the Philippines. 

  • Suga said the strategic partnership is founded on shared universal values such as freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, and that it has entered a “golden age”. He expressed his intention to continue promoting cooperation to achieve FOIP.

  • Suga met with President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday as part of his “Olympics diplomacy”. The two agreed to continue dialogue ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

  • Suga also welcomed enhanced cooperation to achieve FOIP through bilateral activities such as joint exercises. The two discussed regional matters including China and shared deep concerns over the human rights situations in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. 

  • The first batch of AstraZeneca vaccines to be sent to Cambodia and Iran arrived in their respective destinations on July 23. Cambodia received 300,000 doses, while Iran received 1.1 million doses.

  • The government plans to send around 11 million shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine to fifteen countries including Iran, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Pacific Island countries through the COVAX facility.

  • The G20 Environment Ministers’ Meeting was held last Friday in Napoli, Italy. The ministers discussed decarbonization policies ahead of the UN’s COP 26 meeting in November in the U.K. 

  • There were stark differences between developed and developing countries over how fast countries should phase out coal power. Developing countries are largely against phasing out coal power.  

Domestic Politics

8. Political Developments

  • The Annual Health, Labor and Welfare Report was presented Friday at a cabinet meeting. The report points out that it is necessary to consider developing a safety net supporting diverse work styles, especially as the pandemic revealed a noticeable effect on part-time and freelance workers.

  • The cabinet approved Friday the white paper on information and communications, which states that the pandemic revealed issues with the government’s digital infrastructure. 

  • It points out a need to overhaul operations from scratch, especially given issues such as slow processing of cash handouts and failure to utilize apps to track coronavirus patients. 

  • Prime Minister Suga will soon instruct the ruling coalition and government to prepare a draft supplementary budget to support individuals and businesses hurt financially by the pandemic. Previous reports suggest it could be a ¥30 trillion package.

  • The plan is to finalize it in the first half of September, in time for the Lower House election. The government and ruling coalition hopes supporting citizens’ livelihood will boost their prospects at the polls.

9. State of the Economy

  • On Friday, the Nikkei Stock Average (225 of largest companies) and Tokyo Stock Price Index (all companies in TSE’s first division) both fell significantly following an expansion of the COVID-19 state of emergency to four more prefectures. 

  • The Nikkei Average in particular fell ¥440 from the previous day to ¥27,300. It seems the lack of prospect for the economy returning to normal weighed heavily on the performance of the index.

  • Investors’ risk aversion was also strengthened by the decline in major stock prices such as the U.S. futures and Asian indexes like Hong Kong during trading hours.

  • The finance ministry announced Friday the general account balance sheet for FY 2020. Of the ¥175 trillion appropriated for the year due to the coronavirus response, more than ¥30.78 trillion was left over and carried over to this year. This is the largest amount carried over in history.

  • The IMF’s World Economic Outlook published on Tuesday showed that Japan’s GDP growth rate for 2021 is 2.8 percent, down 0.5 percent from the previous calculation in April. 

  • The impact of the pandemic and state of emergency pushed Japan’s growth rate to the lowest among developed countries. The IMF also revised Japan’s growth rate for 2022, up 0.5 points to 3 percent, as it expects the economy to improve in the second half of the fiscal year. 


10. Parties Prepare for Fall Elections

  • In an interview published on Monday, Prime Minister Suga said he is “extremely greedy” when it comes to the victory line for the upcoming Lower House election.

  • He stated that elections are always unpredictable but nothing will change in terms of how the party prepares for the election. The interview proves to some that the prime minister remains unfazed despite plummeting cabinet approval ratings.

  • Former foreign minister and current CDP lawmaker Katsuya Okada told reporters Thursday that, although it is regrettable the CDP and DPP could not merge before the fall election, he hopes such a time will come after the election.

  • Okada added that the opposition would have to unite to defeat the ruling coalition. He indicated that the two parties should seek a merger ahead of the Upper House election slated for next summer. 

  • Akira Amari, chairperson of the LDP Research Commission on the Tax System, said Sunday on a TV program that the LDP presidential election scheduled for September could be postponed until after the Lower House election. 

  • He argued that it would be better to call the Lower House election in September or October after the vaccination drive progresses further. He also “100 percent” denied rumors that he could be named the next secretary-general.  

11. Suga Backs Ex-Cabinet Level Lawmaker for Yokohama City Mayor 

  • Suga announced Thursday in a local newspaper that he will support former LDP lawmaker and National Public Safety Commission Chairperson Hachiro Okonogi’s bid to win the mayorship of Yokohama City. 

  • So far, Suga has lost three national races and several local races, calling into question his value as the face of the party. A win in this election could help boost his prospects ahead of the Lower House and LDP presidential elections.

  • On the other hand, a loss in his home prefecture (not originally from Kanagawa, but running from Kanagawa district) could spell the beginning of the end for his term as LDP president.

  • The mayoral election will be held on August 22. The LDP has decided to allow lawmakers to decide who to vote for because Okonogi’s campaign rests on opposing the LDP’s plan to construct an integrated resort.

Other Noteworthy News

  • Prosecution Committee Deems Decision to Not Charge Ex-PM Abe Over Dinner Party as Inappropriate: Tokyo’s First Committee for the Inquest of Prosecutioncomprised of eleven members chosen by lot from citizens listed on the electoral register—decided on Friday that prosecutors’ decision to not indict former prime minister Abe for violating the Public Offices Election Act at the dinner party prior to the cherry blossom viewing party (hosted annually by the  prime minister to celebrate distinguished people in their respective fields) was inappropriate given a lack of investigation into the matter. Abe was accused of paying part of the cost for a dinner party with voters from his district before the cherry blossom viewing party. This was allegedly covered by campaign funds, a violation of the Public Offices Election Act. Reports eventually revealed that of the ¥23 million (≈$210,000) used for the dinner party over five years, at least ¥8 million (≈$73,000) was covered by the office. However, prosecutors ended up dropping charges as they could not find sufficient evidence. Abe’s ex-chief public secretary, the president of the “Shinzo Abe Supporters Association” (kōenkai), which hosted the dinner, was served a summary order (ryakushiki meirei) of one million yen last December for violating the Political Funds Control Act, failing to note around ¥30 million (≈$273,000) in the political funding balance report between 2017-2020. Prosecutors later dismissed this case too, arguing that it could not obtain a copy of the report for 2017 and therefore had insufficient evidence. A separate committee for the inquest of prosecution decided in March this year that prosecutors should reinvestigate the matter, but it yielded nothing. This time, the committee argued that the decision to not indict the prime minister and his secretary was inappropriate because 1) prosecutors had only asked for testimony from a portion of the attendees and 2) there was clear evidence, including testimony from the secretary, that the office covered a portion of the cost for the event using campaign funds. With this decision, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office will launch a reinvestigation to decide whether or not to indict Abe. If they find him not guilty again, investigations will be ended, and the committee will not conduct another review on the case. For his part, Abe says that he and his office cooperated with the prosecutors and was found not guilty based on a rigorous investigation. He says he will closely watch how the prosecutors respond to this decision by the committee. 
  • Government Decides Against Appealing Hiroshima “Black Rain” Ruling: The government issued a statement Tuesday, which said it will not appeal the Hiroshima High Court ruling on July 14 concerning individuals exposed to radioactive “black rain” after the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing. The High Court upheld the District Court ruling that confirmed all 84 plaintiffs would be certified as “hibakusha,” or survivors of the atomic bombing, eligible to receive a health handbook (hokensho) for survivors previously denied based on lines drawn on a map by the government. The certificates entitle them to medical benefits if they develop any of eleven specific illnesses caused by radiation. A major reason the government decided against appealing the decision was the fact that it only plays a supplementary role in the court case. The defendant in this case is Hiroshima City and prefecture, the two local governments that issue the health handbooks. The two local governments were against appealing the decision, unlike the government which sought to appeal the decision up until Prime Minister Suga announced the cabinet’s decision on Tuesday. It seems government officials were concerned that appealing the decision before August 6, the anniversary of the bombing, would lead to criticism toward the government. There were also concerns the government would lose the case even if it were to appeal this time, as was the case in the High Court ruling. Although the government is considering ways to “swiftly” expand relief measures to survivors who were not plaintiffs, it also noted in its statement that the court ruling is fundamentally incompatible with traditional relief measures already in place. Specifically, the government points to the court’s decision to extend relief measures from those targeted in the District Court ruling to those with internal radiation exposure, likely due to ingestion of contaminated food and water. It says this decision is inconsistent with past rulings and not grounded in scientific radiation level estimates. The health ministry plans to include Nagasaki City and prefecture in discussions over revising the certification guidelines for survivors, but adds that it is a slightly different problem there. As Suga mentioned, the trial involving Nagasaki survivors is ongoing, so whether they are included will be a matter to decide later. Currently, the health ministry does not foresee Nagasaki survivors getting certified under this Hiroshima court ruling. In terms of concrete results from the ruling, Hiroshima City will issue atomic bomb survivor certificates for all the plaintiffs by August 6.

II. Public Opinion Polls

  • A Nihon Keizai Shimbun/TV Tokyo poll released Monday showed a 34 percent approval rating for the Suga cabinet, down 9 percent from June, and a disapproval rating of 57 percent, up 7 percent.
    • 41 percent of respondents aged 18-39, 32 percent of those aged 40-59, and 32 percent of those aged 60 and older support the government.
    • 53 percent of respondents said they disapproved of the government due to a lack of leadership, while 35 percent said it was due to poor management of the government and party. 
    • 57 percent of respondents are dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the coronavirus, down 7 percent, while 39 percent are satisfied, up 8 percent.
    • 65 percent of respondents said the government’s vaccination drive is not going smoothly, up six percent, while 29 percent said it is going smoothly, down 9 percent.
    • 59 percent of respondents said the Olympic Games should continue to be held, while 37 percent said it should be postponed or cancelled.
    • 33 percent of respondents said the games should be held without spectators; 22 percent said it should be held with 10,000 spectators; and 4 percent said it should be held as originally planned
    • 38 percent of respondents said they support the LDP, down 5 percent; 9 percent support the largest opposition CDP; and 35 percent of respondents identify as independent, up 4 percent. 

Image: Captain76 (CC BY-SA 3.0)


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