- The total number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Japan stood at 18,593 on Wednesday 1 July, health officials said, with a total of 972 people who lost their lives as a result of the diseaseThe Tokyo metropolitan government reported a new record of a highest number of daily cases since a state of emergency for the capital was lifted more than a month ago, according to an official, which was a number of 67 cases on 1 July.
- The European Union on Wednesday lifted travel restrictions for visitors from 14 countries outside EU, including Japan and South Korea, after introducing the controls in March in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus.In Japan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga responds to the decision, saying he welcomed the move. “We understand that the EU policy that exempts 14 countries, including Japan, from entry restriction takes into account objectively Japan’s infection situation and is based on amicable Japan-EU relations,” Suga said at a news conference Wednesday.Regarding Japan’s entry restrictions, Suga said Japan is considering allowing visitors from Thailand, Vietnam, New Zealand and Australia while imposing infectious disease control measures, and will consider whether to expand the list to include other countries and areas, such as the EU, based on the infection situation at home and abroad.
Japan has an entry ban in place for about 130 countries and regions, including the 27 EU nations. Since the European Union seeks reciprocity on travel restrictions, the regional bloc is set to call for Tokyo to ease its measures.
- On Tuesday 30 June, Tokyo said it will move away from numerical targets to contain COVID-19 and rely more on the advice of a committee of experts, to try to control the novel coronavirus and avoid another economic slowdown.The metropolis, with a population of 14 million, has sought to keep new cases below 20 a day since Japan lifted a state of emergency on 25 May, but has had five straight days of more than 50 new cases.Tokyo is two weeks into a final phase of loosening coronavirus restrictions and officials have repeatedly said they see no need to declare a new state of emergency. They also say the medical system can handle current cases and that increased testing partly explains the rising infections.
Under the new guidelines, Tokyo will move away from strict numerical targets to determine if new restrictions are needed. Instead, a group of experts will evaluate the situation on a weekly basis.
“Our medical and testing systems have both been fortified,” Governor Yuriko Koike told a news conference. “We are aiming to be able to both keep on top of the virus and keep economic activity going.”
- Medical startup Anges Inc said Tuesday it has started Japan’s first clinical trial on humans of a potential vaccine for the new coronavirus, aiming for government approval by the fall next year for its sale if the vaccine proves to be safe and effective.The trial at Osaka City University Hospital begins with injecting the DNA vaccine into 30 healthy adults through early July. It will assess their data over eight weeks to see whether they have side effects from the vaccine or have developed antibodies against the disease.The participants are grouped into two teams of 15, with one given larger amounts of the vaccine than the other. Each person receives two intramuscular shots of the vaccine.
If the initial phase of the clinical trial confirms the vaccine’s safety, Anges will expand enrollment to around 400. If the next stage goes well, it hopes to obtain government approval between the spring and the fall of next year to produce and sell the vaccine.
Anges said the enrolled patients will be observed until July next year. It said it also plans a separate clinical trial of the vaccine at Osaka University.
The vaccine Anges has developed will inject a genetically engineered circular DNA into the body that produces “spike proteins,” which are a characteristic of the coronavirus, according to the company. When such proteins are made, the body’s immune system is stimulated to make antibodies against the virus.
The company joins some 17 clinical tests of coronavirus vaccine candidates being conducted globally, including by U.S. biotechnology company Moderna Inc, British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca Plc and China’s CanSino Biologics Inc, as the race accelerates.
In Japan, Shionogi & Co is also developing a vaccine but has yet to start a clinical test on humans.
Given the expected surge in demand, Japan is seeking to secure a stable supply of vaccines for people in the country. The government is pushing for homegrown vaccines and also negotiating with foreign companies such as AstraZeneca in an attempt to secure enough vaccines.
- Last Friday, the Immigration Services Agency (ISA) resumed the processing of visa applications by issuing certificates of eligibility for resident status that are delivered to foreign nationals before they travel to Japan and used in exchange for newly issued visas. The procedure had been halted since the coronavirus outbreak, and had remained in that state alongside Japan’s gradually imposed, strict entry restrictions on foreign travelers.The new measure will enable foreign nationals who were set to move to and begin lives in Japan, for work or study, to obtain their visas once they land.“Until now, applicants had to wait until Japan relaxed its entry restrictions for procedures to resume,” said Hitoshi Kobayashi, deputy director of ISA’s Residency Management Division. “But following Friday’s change, with certificates at hand, they won’t face further delays due to their applications not having been dealt with.” Given that 627,085 people applied for such certificates in 2018, according to ISA’s most recent data, slower screenings could result in drastic delays.
In a telephone conversation on Tuesday, Kobayashi explained that validity of the papers has been significantly extended for those with certificates issued between October and January, and for new applicants. Now they can exchange the documents upon arrival in Japan within six months from the moment entry restrictions are lifted.
The agency had halted the procedures earlier this year, as the pandemic continued to unfold worldwide, because in most cases such documents would have lost validity by the time Japan opened its borders. Normally, such certificates are valid for three months.
However, the distribution of pending documents does not mean that applicants will automatically be allowed to enter Japan. At present, foreign nationals need to meet strict criteria for exemption from the nation’s entry restrictions — either for humanitarian reasons or if they qualify for an exemption given to business travelers from selected countries.
“We take into consideration the situation of families separated (due to the entry restrictions) as special circumstances, and allow foreign nationals to join their spouses in Japan,” an ISA official said. Pending visa applications apparently served as obstacles in handling requests for entry from newly married couples.
The official added that couples with other visa statuses who have been unable to join their families in Japan are also covered by the exemption from the ban for humanitarian reasons, but may need to go through a more complex procedure than spousal visa holders to receive permission to enter the nation.
Japan has yet to determine when it will allow all residents, including those with valid student and working visas, to return. But as the country is set to gradually ease restrictions for business travelers, albeit under a daily quota of 250 visitors from selected countries, the new system related to distribution of certificates of eligibility is also expected to speed up entry procedures for those travelers.
The ISA will have the new system in place until 30 April, 2021, which means that if Japan lifts its entry restriction in February, travelers from countries subject to relaxed controls will be able to use the certificates until that time.
- From Wednesday 1 July, Japan started to require convenience stores, supermarkets, drugstores and other retail outlets to charge for plastic shopping bags, in line with a global trend of reducing plastic waste to combat marine pollution. The initiative is aimed at encouraging shoppers to bring their own bags and comes as Japan lags behind other countries in curbing the use of plastics, generating the largest amount of plastic waste per capita after the United States.But environmental experts have already questioned the significance of solely targeting plastic shopping bags since they account for just an estimated 2% of an annual 9 million tons of plastic waste generated in the country. The coronavirus outbreak may also make consumers reluctant to use the same shopping bag each time out of sanitary concerns, and more willing to pay for store-provided ones.The law banning free provision of plastic bags leaves the price of a plastic bag up to the retailers. Japan’s three top convenience store operators — Seven-Eleven Japan Co, Lawson Inc and FamilyMart Co — have started to charge 3 yen to 5 yen a bag.
Some retailers had already stopped distributing free plastic bags, with major supermarket chain operator Aeon Co having started to charge for them at some stores as early as 2007, later expanding the move to other stores. Among department store operators, Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd. switched to offering paper bags instead of plastic ones for food products beginning Wednesday.
In the eateries sector, McDonald’s Co (Japan) Ltd and beef bowl chain Yoshinoya Holdings Co continue to offer takeout meals in free bags that use environmentally friendly materials, which are exempt from the government’s regulation for compulsory charging. Bioplastic bags containing 25% or more of plant-derived materials, as well as reusable bags that are 0.05 millimeter thick or more, are not covered by the regulation.
The Japanese government included the mandatory plastic bag charging in its environmental policy package in May 2019, shortly before its hosting of the Group of 20 major economies’ summit in Osaka, where plastic waste was on the agenda.
“Consumers are not sufficiently aware about the overall waste situation in Japan and why the government is introducing a mandatory charging policy,” said Evonne Yiu, a researcher at the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability in Tokyo. “The focus seems to be more on purchasing of eco-friendly bags and other alternatives to plastic bags.”
She said Japan should not limit its regulatory steps to plastic bags but should start debating reduction and reuse of other disposable plastic products, such as bento lunch boxes, straws, bottles and food packages.
- The coronavirus has forced food shoppers in Japan to abandon their doubts about online grocery stores, sending retailers such as Aeon Co scrambling to meet a surge in delivery demand. Although Japanese shoppers aren’t alone in going online during the outbreak, the shift is remarkable for a country that had been expected to take years to embrace online food shopping because of a zeal for fresh and perfectly presented produce.”I think that this pandemic has triggered an inflection point in the adoption of grocery e-commerce,” said Luke Jensen, executive director of Ocado Group, hired to build a grocery e-commerce business for Japanese retail giant Aeon.Most companies won’t disclose numbers, but retail executives and analysts estimate internet sales now account for about 5% or more of Japan’s total grocery sales, compared with 2.5% before the pandemic. Although that is still lower than some pre-crisis estimates of 15% in China and even 7% in broadband laggard Britain, it challenges a long-held belief that Japanese shoppers will always on shopping daily and in person, checking the goods first-hand.
As more households have two people working, analysts say, people want to spend less time shopping. But they still have exacting standards for service and produce quality, which have perplexed previous foreign entrants such as Carrefour and Tesco.
Such changes are closely watched as Japan is one of the world’s most valuable grocery markets, worth over 50 trillion yen a year. Per capita, only countries such as Switzerland, Norway and Israel spend more on food.
Major Japanese supermarkets, despite talking about online services for years, have only recently begun large-scale spending on e-commerce infrastructure. Most have struggled to meet the spike in demand, and would-be-shoppers on Twitter have complained of difficulty securing delivery slots throughout the crisis.
Analysts say the shift is also likely to favor bigger retailers who can invest in high-tech warehouses capable of handling large volumes rather than just having store staff pick items from retail shelves and package them for delivery.
That could put smaller supermarkets and mom-and-pop stores, already struggling to match the likes of Aeon and Ito-Yokado in pricing, at a further disadvantage. But Violetta Volovich, who has researched global grocery industry trends for e-commerce consultancy Edge by Ascential, said remote and costly high-tech fulfilment centres were not the answer for all retailers.
Instead, she envisions many retailers adopting automating more jobs in existing brick-and-mortar stores and embracing features such as “click and collect”, in which shoppers pick up online purchases at the stores. She also said the rise in food e-commerce didn’t mean an end to traditional grocery shopping.
“Just because people get pizza delivery doesn’t mean they will stop going to pizza restaurants,” she said.