The Weekly Observer: August 2-6

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. Government Tightens COVID-19 Response as Case Numbers Reach Record High

  • The government decided Thursday to expand pre-emergency measures (man-en bōshi-to jūten sochi) from five prefectures to thirteen until the end of the month.

  • This comes as Japan topped one million total COVID-19 cases on Friday. Daily cases on Thursday also reached 15,263 cases for the first time. Many prefectures—including Tokyo, which confirmed 5,042 cases—continue to top their respective record highs. In Tokyo, the seven-day average as of Sunday was 3,105 cases, six times greater than the total cases at the beginning of July.

  • Data shows that total cases rapidly increased 1.96 times in the week leading up to Wednesday from a week ago. The eight prefectures newly placed under pre-emergency measures—Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Shizuoka, Aichi, Shiga and Kumamoto—all saw cases increase by two to three times last week.

  • Cases per 100,000 people also reached “Stage Four” (highest alert level: 25 cases per 100,000 people) in the last week in 24 prefectures. This is a marked increase from the seven prefectures that confirmed “Stage Four” numbers last week.

  • Of the 5,042 confirmed cases in Tokyo on Thursday, a record-high 2,444 cases (49 percent) were the “delta” strain (Indian). Data released at the health ministry’s expert panel meeting on Wednesday suggests 90 percent of the greater Tokyo area’s cases are the “delta” strain.

  • NHK reported Friday that the first case of the “lambda” strain (Peruvian) was confirmed to be a woman who arrived in Japan on July 20 from Peru. The WHO classifies “lambda” as a “variant of interest” that could possibly be more transmissible and vaccine-resistant than other strains. 

  • Nikkei also reported Thursday that the health ministry does not intend to relax quarantine measures for vaccinated travelers arriving from abroad. Despite other countries relaxing the 14-day quarantine rule, the ministry cites a lack of “precedent” for its reluctance to relax the measures. 

2. Prime Minister Rules Out Nationwide Emergency

  • On Thursday, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ruled out declaring a nationwide state of emergency amid a surge in coronavirus cases. Tokyo’s seven-day average is expected to top 10,000 in two weeks if the current rate persists

  • The prime minister stressed that banning eateries from selling alcohol, encouraging remote work, avoiding unnecessary travel and pushing forward the vaccination drive will mitigate the spread of the virus.

  • On Wednesday, Shigeru Omi, head of the government’s expert panel, said that the government ought to discuss whether it should declare a nationwide state of emergency. He noted that the government’s message has not always been strong and consistent.

  • Omi attributes the spread of the virus to the “delta” strain’s stronger transmissibility, COVID-19 fatigue and people feeling less sense of crisis having experienced multiple state of emergencies.

  • On Tuesday, Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of economic revitalization, urged citizens to stay at home to avoid overwhelming medical institutions further. He noted that patients with severe symptoms increased from 300 to 700 in the last ten days.

  • LDP Policy Research Council Chair Hakubun Shimomura said Monday that the Diet should prepare for the future and deliberate crafting legislation that enables the government to impose a lockdown. After some experts voiced their support for such legislation last week, Suga said a lockdown isn’t the suitable solution.

3. Government to Secure Hospital Beds by Restricting Use to the Seriously Ill 

  • The government introduced a policy on Thursday that says hospitals in regions where the virus is spreading rapidly should only accept patients who are seriously ill, moderately ill but in need of oxygen, or at risk of becoming seriously ill. 

  • This comes as reports suggest patients are being turned away by hospitals due to a lack of bedspace. Other patients not in the three categories above, including those recovering at hotels and other facilities, will be expected to recuperate at home. 

  • There are serious concerns with this policy. Just in the first five days of August, eight patients recuperating at home in their thirties to fifties have died in Tokyo. This is a rapid increase considering eleven had died between December 2020 and July 2021.

  • Earlier in the week, the government’s policy only included seriously ill patients and those at high risk of becoming seriously ill. Pushback from the LDP and Komeito led to the inclusion of moderately ill patients in need of oxygen.

  • The opposition parties also agreed on Wednesday to demand a withdrawal of the policy. The Constitutional Democratic Party, Communist Party and Democratic People’s Party argue that cutting off moderately or mildly ill patients will result in a rapid increase in deaths due to abrupt changes in health conditions at home.

  • On Wednesday, Communist Party Chairman Kazuo Shii went as far as to call the burden on the medical system a “manmade disaster” created by the Suga Cabinet’s mismanagement of the situation.  

  • The policy was reportedly crafted without consultation with the ruling coalition, the government’s expert panel or medical institutions. On Thursday, the LDP and Komeito requested that important policy revisions be subject to prior consultation between the government and the ruling coalition.

4. Government Stresses Vaccination Drive is Proceeding as Scheduled

  • The Cabinet Office reports that, as of Friday, around 99.7 million shots have been administered across the country. Of the total population, 46 percent have been vaccinated once, while 33 percent have been vaccinated twice.

  • Vaccine czar Taro Kono revealed Thursday that the government will receive 76 million Pfizer vaccine doses between July-September, an increase in 6 million from the original contract. 

  • Shionogi CEO Isao Teshirogi told Mainichi Shimbun on Thursday that the company intends to apply for “conditional early approval” of its new coronavirus drug for patients with mild to moderate symptoms by the end of the year.

  • Japan has only approved an IV drip for individuals with mild symptoms. Shionogi’s drug would allow patients to take medicine at home. Besides Shionogi, Pfizer is also considering clinical trials in Japan for its coronavirus drug.

  • Prime Minister Suga said Wednesday that 87 percent of elderly citizens had received their first shot, while 77 percent had also received their second shot by the end of July. He added that the goal of administering two shots to all elderly citizens who desire to get vaccinated has been largely achieved.

  • Suga also mentioned that the government aims to administer two shots to at least 40 percent of the population by the end of August.

  • Last Friday, vaccine czar Kono said that people who have received two shots already may get their third shot sometime next year

Foreign & Defense Policy

5. Foreign Minister Participates in ASEAN Meetings

  • Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi took part in a series of ASEAN-related foreign minister meetings this week. 

  • Motegi participated in the 14th Mekong-Japan Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Friday. He stated that the Mekong region is located at the core of the Indo-Pacific region and that the two sides will cooperate through the Mekong-Japan cooperation network.

  • Motegi also stated that Japan has provided Mekong countries with 5.6 million vaccine doses and ¥750 million for cold chain development so far. On Myanmar, he called on the military to release all detained persons and swiftly restore the country’s democratic political system. He also expressed concern over the recent announcement by Myanmar to invalidate the results of last year’s election.

  • Motegi participated in the 11th East Asia Summit Foreign Minister Meeting on Wednesday. He strongly opposed unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas, voiced deep concern for the human rights situations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, discussed North Korea’s nuclear and missile program as well as the abduction issue, and welcomed the dispatch of an ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar. 

  • Motegi participated in the Japan-ASEAN ministerial meeting on Tuesday. He stressed the importance of maintaining and strengthening the principles of rule of law, openness, transparency, and inclusivity in the Indo-Pacific region, and showed support for the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, a cornerstone for the realization of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” promoted by Japan. 

  • Motegi also participated in the 22nd ASEAN Plus Three Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. He pointed out that Japan has provided ASEAN with 9.6 million vaccine doses and ¥2.5 billion for cold chain development this year. He also stressed the importance of a free and fair economic order during a time when protectionism is on the rise. 

  • 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.

6. Foreign Policy Developments

  • MOFA Director-General of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau Takehiro Funakoshi lodged a protest on Friday with the South Korean Embassy in Tokyo after the South Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries made an announcement that it would begin providing live footage of Takeshima Islands (Dokdo for Korea) on its website.

  • Funakoshi said the move was unacceptable given the islands are an inherent part of Japan’s territory in terms of history and international law. He also urged the South Korean side to drop the project.

  • The foreign ministry announced Wednesday that Japan will send around 840,000 of the 1.6 million vaccine doses it plans to send to Nepal on Thursday and Friday.

  • Takeo Akiba, secretary general of the National Security Secretariat, had a phone call on Tuesday with National Security Advisor Doval of India. The two agreed to continue bilateral cooperation, promote a free and open Indo-Pacific and work with like-minded countries through frameworks like the Quad.

  • Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Shigeo Yamada had a phone call on Monday with Deputy Minister Morgulov of Russia. The two exchanged views on the issue of signing a peace treaty, joint economic activity and exchange projects on the Northern Territories and bilateral relations including economic relations. 

  • On Sunday, the foreign ministry ordered Hirohisa Soma, deputy chief of mission at the Japanese embassy in Seoul, to return to Japan. 

  • The government planned to reassign Soma following news that he told reporters last month that President Moon Jae-in is in a tug-of-war only with himself over frayed ties between the two countries, using a sexually explicit expression.

  • MOFA Director-General of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau Funakoshi had a phone call on Monday with South Korea’s Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Noh Kyu-duk. 

  • The two exchanged views on recent North Korean affairs and confirmed that the two countries would cooperate bilaterally and trilaterally with the U.S. to resolve issues pertaining to North Korea.

  • Nikkei reported Sunday that Japan’s ODA amount for FY 2021 is expected to be greater than the current all-time high of ¥1.59 trillion (≈$14.4 billion) recorded in 1995. It attributes this to Japan’s efforts to counter China in providing medical support to Southeast Asia amid the pandemic. 

7. Defense-related Developments 

  • The defense ministry on Friday added fifteen USFJ facilities, including the Henoko ammunition storage facilities and White Beach area, to the list of important facilities where the flight of small UAVs are prohibited.

  • The revised Drone Act now covers thirty USFJ and thirty-eight JSDF facilities. It comes into effect on September 5 for USFJ and August 16 for JSDF facilities.

  • Drone flights over these facilities and 300 meters around it are prohibited. Violations will result in imprisonment of up to a year or a fine of up to ¥500,000.

  • The defense ministry said Thursday that it will proceed with plans to modify the JASDF’s F-15 fighter jets, but cancel the installment of LRASM, or long-range anti-ship cruise missiles due to unexpectedly high costs for modification.  

  • It will proceed with plans to install JASSM, or air-launched cruise missiles. It also plans to come up with yen figures for the FY 2021 budget by the end of the year.

  • Yomiuri reported Monday that the defense ministry decided to deploy the GSDF’s missile unit to Ishigaki Island in Okinawa at the end of 2022. Around 500-600 SDF personnel will be dispatched. 

  • With this deployment, Japan will have four missile units in the southwestern islands—the Okinawa mainland, Miyakojima, Ishigaki and Kagoshima/Amami Oshima. These are viewed as a response to an increase in Chinese maritime activities around the first island chain.

Domestic Politics

8. Suga Skips Parts of Speech for the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony

  • Prime Minister Suga spoke Friday at the ceremony in Hiroshima marking the 76th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing in 1945.

  • The prime minister later apologized for skipping a section of the speech which included Japan’s pledge to “strive toward the realization of a world without nuclear weapons.” 

  • In the peace declaration, Hiroshima City Mayor Kazumi Matsui called on the government to become a signatory of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force on January 22, 2021. 

  • Suga also met with representatives of survivor groups in Hiroshima City, telling them that Japan will proactively reach out to states with nuclear weapons and contribute to the international discussion towards abolishing nuclear weapons.

9. Political Developments

  • CDP leader Yukio Edano said Friday that the government’s optimistic response was to blame for the rise in cases, and reiterated a need to hold an extraordinary Diet session to discuss pressing issues such as securing hospital beds.

  • On Wednesday, the CDP’s Diet affairs chairperson demanded that the LDP agree to hold an out-of-session examination (heikaichū shinsa) during next week’s Obon holiday to discuss the coronavirus response. The LDP will discuss the matter within the party. 

  • NHK reported Wednesday that, based on resident registration data as of January 1, there is a voting power disparity of 2.047 between the least and most populated House of Representatives single-member districts. 

  • The Supreme Court found that a disparity above 2 times is constitutionally problematic. The House of Councillors power disparity is higher, currently at 2.978 times. 

  • The opposition will demand former prime minister Shinzo Abe to appear before an extraordinary session of the Diet following the decision by the Tokyo First Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution that prosecutors’ decision to not indict him for violating the Public Offices Election Act was inappropriate.

  • Abe was accused of paying part of the cost for a dinner party with voters from his district before the cherry blossom viewing party with political funds. The ruling coalition will closely watch how the prosecutors proceed with its reinvestigation.

10. State of the Economy

  • The internal affairs ministry released Friday the Family and Income Expenditure report for June.

  • Consumption expenditure per household of more than two people was ¥26,285, a 5.1 percent decrease from the same month last year and adjusted for inflation. It is the first decrease in four months.

  • The decrease was a result of a recovery in consumption last year due to the lifting of the COVID-19 state of emergency and ¥10,000 cash handouts per person.

  • Other data shows that retail sales (retail and service industries) for June increased 0.1 percent from a year earlier. 

  • LDP Upper House Secretary-General Hiroshige Seko said Tuesday that businesses such as the food service industry and individuals in dire financial situations need additional support from the government. He proposed a ¥30 trillion supplementary budget for FY 2021 to cover for the output gap

  • LDP Policy Research Council Chair Shimomura said Monday that the party will recommend the government include financial support measures in the next supplementary budget for businesses that raise wages following the proposal to hike the average minimum wage from​​ ¥902 to ¥930. 

  • A government committee considering the wage hike decided last month that it will propose raising the minimum wage across the country for FY 2021 by a record ¥28, or 3.1 percent from the previous year.


11. LDP Considers September 29 as Date for Presidential Election 

  • Kyodo reported Tuesday that the LDP is considering September 29 as the day to hold the party’s presidential election. This will change if the prime minister calls a Lower House election first. 

  • Unlike last year’s simplified election in which only Diet members and prefectural party chapters voted, this year’s election will reinstate the party (tōin) and fraternity member (tōyū) votes. The party will make a decision on August 26.

  • LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai stressed on Tuesday that there is strong support within the party and from citizens for Suga to continue as LDP president.

  • Suga has already indicated he will announce his reelection bid “when the time comes.” So far, Executive Acting Secretary-General Seiko Noda and former policy research council chair Fumio Kishida have indicated an interest in running for president.

  • This changed on Thursday when reports surfaced that former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi would be announcing her candidacy in the monthly magazine Bungei Shunjū to be published next Tuesday. 

  • Takaichi reportedly criticizes the Suga Cabinet for failing to push forth the second arrow of “Abenomics”: fiscal consolidation. She says she is running for president due to the many challenges and worries society faces today. 

Other Noteworthy News

  • Prosecutors Raid Komeito Lawmakers’ Offices Over Moneylending Scandal: The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office on Wednesday raided the offices of two Komeito lawmakers—Nobuhiro Yoshida and Masataka Ōta—over alleged moneylending irregularities involving two people, including a former secretary of Kiyohiko Tōyama, ex-Komeito lawmaker who resigned in February after reports emerged that he had visited nightclubs during the state of emergency. The two lawmakers’ secretaries, including Tōyama’s former secretary who became a secretary for one of the lawmakers after his resignation, are suspected of having brokered a loan contract with Japan Finance Corporation (JFC), a government-affiliated financial institution, without registering as a money-lending business provider. The law states that only registered brokers may conduct business deals. Prosecutors believe that they may have made profits fraudulently through this brokerage service. Prosecutors also raided Tōyama’s home and his consulting firm the same day. Jiji also reported on Friday that a supporter of Tōyama revealed in an interview that he had acted as a broker for several loan deals with the JFC and received a three percent commission. The man confessed that he brokered deals for around 100 companies and asked Tōyama’s secretary to introduce him to JFC employees in charge of loans. Tōyama was deputy finance minister at the time. So far, Komeito’s reaction has been to promise compliance with the prosecutors’ investigation. Party leader Natsuo Yamaguchi apologized on Friday, adding that at this point in time, no lawmaker or secretary affiliated with the party are suspects. He also stressed that the party will do everything to restore confidence in politics. This is viewed as a way of emphasizing how “clean” the party is ahead of the Lower House election. The party would like to avoid tarnishing its image as a “clean party,” especially given the fact that it is fielding a candidate in place of the LDP in Hiroshima’s 3rd district following the latter’s bribery scandal involving ex-justice minister Katsuyuki Kawai.
  • Cracks Begin to Form in CDP-DPP “Coalition”: Although the Constitutional Democratic Party, the largest opposition party, and Democratic People’s Party signed a memorandum on July 16 to cooperate in the upcoming Lower House election, cracks are beginning to form in the partnership as DPP lawmakers complain that the memorandum is far more favorable to the CDP. The memorandum states that the two parties will work to unify behind a single candidate in single-member districts (SMDs). It also states that when campaigning for the proportional representation block in SMDs, both parties will support a candidate from the party that is fielding a candidate in the SMD. Because the CDP is fielding far more candidates than the DPP, the lawmakers of the latter find the deal is unfair. The CDP has already approved the memo, while the DPP continues to face resistance and cannot get it approved. The two parties have never seen eye to eye, with DPP leader Yuichiro Tamaki declaring in April that his party will not join a coalition government with the Communist Party should the opposition win a majority in the upcoming election. After pressure from the DPP and the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengō), the two party’s largest support group, CDP leader Edano later met Tamaki halfway and agreed that his party would not seek a coalition with the JCP. The parties also share a history of jostling for power, with a failed merger in January 2020 due to the CDP’s disproportionate power in the number of lawmakers and decision making (the DPP hated the idea of the party name after the merger remaining as the CDP). Members of the current DPP may also be bitter that members of the party split and joined the CDP in August 2020. The power balance is made more apparent when comparing the CDP’s 110 Lower House lawmakers and the DPP’s seven lawmakers. 

Image: Captain76 (CC BY-SA 3.0)


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