- Tokyo confirmed 106 new cases of the coronavirus on Tuesday 7 July, the metropolitan government said, surpassing the 100 milestone for a sixth straight day, as a recent surge in infections rekindled concerns over a second wave of the pneumonia-causing virus.
Recent cases involve a growing number of young people in their 20s and 30s, many of them being traced back to nightlife destinations — primarily in Tokyo’s Kabukicho and Ikebukuro districts. The total cases in the capital rose to 6,973, with 325 deaths.
Despite a recent surge in new cases, a government panel on Monday decided to relax rules for indoor events on condition that measures are in place to curb new infections. Starting Friday, the ceiling on the number of people allowed for indoor exhibitions or music concerts will increase to 5,000 at one time from the current 1,000. The facilities should cap the participants to less than 50% of capacity.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has urged residents not to travel beyond the capital’s borders to curb new infections, but so far ruled out an idea of issuing a uniform business suspension request across all industries amid concerns about the impact on the economy.
Nationwide, 176 new infections were confirmed Monday, raising the total number of cases, including those aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, to 20,654 with 991 deaths, according to Kyodo News.
- Pounding rain that already caused deadly floods in southern Japan was moving northeast Wednesday, battering large areas of Japan’s main island, swelling more rivers, triggering mudslides and destroying houses and roads. At least 58 people have died in several days of flooding.
Parts of Nagano and Gifu, including areas known for scenic mountain trails and hot springs, were flooded by massive downpours. Footage on NHK television showed a swollen river gouging into the embankment, destroying a highway, while in the city of Gero, the rising river was flowing just below a bridge.
Flooding and mudslides disrupted parts of a main road connecting Kamikochi and Matsumoto, two main tourist destinations in Nagano, stranding hundreds of residents and visitors, though they are believed to have safely evacuated. In neighboring Gifu, hundreds of others were also isolated in hot springs town of Gero and Ontake. In another mountainous scenic town of Takayama, several houses were hit by a mudslide, their residents all safely rescued.
As of Wednesday morning, the death toll from the heavy rains starting over the weekend had risen to 58, most of them from the hardest-hit Kumamoto prefecture. Four others were found in Fukuoka, another prefecture on Kyushu, Japan’s third-largest island.
At the peak, as many as 3.6 million people were advised to evacuate, although it wasn’t mandatory and the number who took shelter was not known. About half of the advisories have been lifted by Wednesday afternoon. In places where rain had subsided, residents were busy cleaning up their homes and workplaces.
Though the rains were causing fresh flooding threats in central Japan, flooding was still affecting the southern region. And search and rescue operations continued in Kumamoto, where 14 people are still missing. Tens of thousands of army troops, police and other rescue workers mobilized from around the country to assist, and the rescue operations have been hampered by the rains, flooding, mudslides and disrupted communications.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga urged residents to use caution. “Disasters may happen even with little rain where grounds have loosened from previous rainfalls,” he said. Suga pledged continuing search and rescue efforts, as well as emergency funds for the affected areas.
- Japan is at high risk of heavy rain in early summer when wet and warm air from the East China Sea flows into a seasonal rain front above the country. In July 2018, more than 200 people, about half of them in Hiroshima, died from heavy rain and flooding in southwestern Japan.
Early July marks the end of the rainy season for the Kyushu region. Compared to the beginning of the rainy season, it is warmer and pressure from the Pacific High to the south increases. Therefore, warmer, more humid air is likely to join the front. An active seasonal rain front was similarly the cause of the deadly torrential rains that struck northern Kyushu in 2017 and western Japan in 2018.
Where heavy rain falls depends on where the front stays based on the power balance between the high-pressure systems in the north and south. It is known, however, that Kyushu is susceptible to torrential rain as it is the first area to be hit by seasonal winds holding large amounts of water vapor from the East China Sea.
Such heavy rains are believed to be occurring more often with increased severity as a result of global warming. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) data recorded at 51 spots across Japan over the last 120 years or so, the number of days in a year which saw 200 millimeters or more rain has been increasing by about 0.05 days per 100 years. Two hundred millimeters of rain in a day is equal to the amount of rain that usually falls in Tokyo for the whole month of September.
When the sea surface temperature rises due to global warming, more water vapor becomes suspended in the air, and when the air temperature rises, air can hold much more water vapor. Hiroaki Kawase, a senior researcher at the JMA’s Meteorological Research Institute, and other researchers used a supercomputer to find that in the 2018 torrential rains in western Japan, rainfall increased by about 6% due to the recent rise in temperature.
Kawase explained, “Western Kyushu is especially prone to the effects of global warming, and there is a tendency for us to see a notable increase in how often the area is hit by torrential rain in July.”
The JMA expects that if carbon dioxide is emitted across the world at the current pace, Japan will see by the end of this century at least twice as many days with daily rainfall of 200 millimeters or more compared to the late 20th century. Kawase said, “There’s no doubt that the amount of rain falling over a single occasion will increase. Measures to control flooding must be altered accordingly.”
- Japan will begin discussions this month on concrete steps to reduce its dependence on coal and shift toward renewable energy sources to cut down on carbon emissions, industry minister Hiroshi Kajiyama said Friday. The announcement came a day after reports that Japan will shut down 100 or so of its 140 existing coal-fired generators by fiscal 2030 amid international criticism that it is not doing enough to fight global warming.
“We will look for ways to usher out low-efficiency coal while ensuring there is enough capacity to maintain a stable energy supply,” Kajiyama told a press conference, adding that placing new restrictions on electric utilities could be an option. Japan currently depends on coal to generate 32% of its electricity, compared with just 17% generated by renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.
Kajiyama said the government will look for ways to promote renewable energy, including by reforming rules on using the power grid. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will set up an expert panel in July to come up with specific steps. Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi said at a press conference that it was a “big step toward showing the international community Japan’s commitment to realizing a carbon-free society.”
Under its Strategic Energy Plan, released in 2018, Japan aims to reduce its dependence on coal to 26% by fiscal 2030, while boosting its reliance on renewable energy to 22 to 24%, and nuclear energy from 6% to 20-22%. Kajiyama said the ministry is also considering tougher requirements for firms receiving government support to export coal technology. But he stressed that Japan would not quit such exports outright.
“Some developing countries have no choice but to use coal for their energy needs, for economic reasons or because they don’t have other natural resources,” he said. Of Japan’s 140 coal-fired generators, 26 are considered high efficiency and will likely remain operational past fiscal 2030. A further 16 are currently under construction.
The only member of the Group of Seven industrialized nations still pursuing new coal-fired power plants, Japan last December was awarded the “Fossil of the Day” award from an environmental group during a U.N. climate change conference for refusing to phase out coal.
In March, Japan maintained its target of a 26% reduction in carbon emission from fiscal 2013 levels by fiscal 2030 under the Paris Agreement despite calls to set a more ambitious goal.
- The Japanese government is planning to accelerate the digitization of society by taking necessary intensive reform measures over the next year, according to informed sources. The plan is included in a draft of the government’s basic economic and fiscal policy guidelines, planned to be drawn up in mid-July. The draft points out that the novel coronavirus crisis has shed light on a delay in digitization in the country.
Meanwhile, it does not directly refer to the government’s goal of turning around the country’s primary budget balance in fiscal 2025, due to difficulties reducing the fiscal deficit, which has increased substantially because of huge spending on measures in the fight against the virus crisis.
The government has failed to smoothly carry out its blanket cash handout program to distribute ¥100,000 per person as coronavirus relief, hindered by a delay in the issuance of the My Number social security and taxation identification card, highlighting the slow progress in the digitization of various systems in society.
“There is no time to lose” to make up for the delay in digitization, the draft says, showing the government’s plan to establish a new headquarters comprising private-sector experts and officials from related government agencies at the Cabinet Secretariat to promote intensive reforms for digitization. It says that the government “will protect the Japanese economy so that the country will not return to deflation.”
While stopping short of directly touching on the primary balance goal, the draft notes that the government will “steadily carry out” measures included in last year’s policy guidelines, such as the primary budget surplus goal, indicating its stance of attaching importance to fiscal discipline as well.
According to the draft, Japan will protect free trade through international cooperation at a time when protectionism is becoming dominant globally. While mentioning plans to develop risk management rules for infectious diseases relating to cross-border travel, the draft stresses that Japan “will lead efforts to realize free and fair rules on trade and investment.”
To stabilize the financial system, the government will promote capital participation in private financial institutions under the law to strengthen financial functions, the draft says. The government expects the Bank of Japan to advance monetary easing to achieve its 2% inflation goal, it also says.
- 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.
- Fujitsu Ltd said on Monday 6 July that it would halve its office space in three years as it rewrites the way employees work under a “new normal” amid the coronavirus pandemic. The IT solutions company said its roughly 80,000 group employees in Japan would work flexible hours, and work-from-home would be standard wherever possible.
“We will overhaul our current work, allowance and welfare framework that is based on the assumption that employees commute to designated offices every day,” Hiroki Hiramatsu, head of the human resources unit, told a news briefing.
Fujitsu has sold or ditched money-losing hardware businesses such as laptops and smartphones in recent years to focus on software services, a business relatively easy to conduct remotely. While reducing office space, the company plans to launch satellite offices in areas where many employees reside and sign up with more shared workspace providers, Hiramatsu said.
- On Friday 3 July, Central Japan Railway Co effectively gave up on opening a high-speed maglev train line between Tokyo and Nagoya in 2027 after failing to secure approval to begin preparatory construction work from a local government that has been concerned about environmental damage.
“Regrettably, the opening in 2027 is difficult,” the train operator, also known as JR Central, said in a statement, in response to Shizuoka Prefecture’s announcement earlier in the day that it had sent a letter to the company, stating it would not approve the construction work.
The letter regarding the Linear Chuo Shinkansen came after the president of the train operator, Shin Kaneko, held talks with Shizuoka Gov Heita Kawakatsu one week ago.
During the talks, Kaneko sought to obtain approval from the governor to launch the work but failed to receive a clear answer. Kawakatsu told the press after the meeting that the plan cannot be approved, citing concerns over environmental protection.
The objection to the plan will make it almost impossible for the train operator to realize its goal of opening the train line as initially scheduled. The new system, which will have a top speed of 500 kilometers per hour, will connect the two major cities located 286 kilometers apart in 40 minutes, less than half the travel time for existing shinkansen train services.
Under the current plan, JR Central intends to excavate a mountainous area in the prefecture known as the Southern Alps to build a tunnel for the shinkansen. But local farmers are concerned that the construction work would cause underground water to flow into the tunnel and, as a result, reduce water flow in the Oi River, which passes through the central part of the prefecture known for its tea and oranges.
The expected delay in opening the high-speed train service could also push back the schedule of JR Central to extend the line and start operations between Tokyo and Osaka in 2037 at the earliest. The maglev train project is viewed as a second high-speed link for the country’s three key metropolises — Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka — as a backup for when the existing shinkansen line becomes obsolete or is damaged by a major earthquake. There will be no Linear Chuo Shinkansen station in Shizuoka Prefecture.
During a press conference on Friday, Shizuoka Vice Gov Takashi Namba said it “wouldn’t take long” for approval to be reached providing JR Central provides ample explanations to the panel of experts that was established by the transport ministry.
The panel has been acting as a mediator between the prefecture and JR Central and discussions to narrow the differences between the two parties and come up with measures to protect the environment are still ongoing.