- On Friday 10 July, Tokyo reported a new single-day record of 243 coronavirus infections as Japan relaxed its guidelines for holding large sporting and other events despite growing fears of a second wave of cases. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike attributed the rising number of cases to increased testing, while the central government reiterated that it is not planning to declare another state of emergency despite the latest figure and the country’s medical system is not overburdened.The daily figures announced by the metropolitan government reflect the most recent totals reported by health authorities and medical institutions in the capital. The latest figure for the capital, with a population of around 14 million, topped the previous single-day record of 224 set Thursday. “The situation (currently) does not warrant immediately declaring another state of emergency,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference.
Economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is also in charge of the coronavirus response, stressed Japan’s medical system is not under the same strain as before, saying the situation is “different from when the state of emergency was declared in April.”
Koike, who has requested that residents refrain from nonessential travel to other prefectures, said, “Rather than continuing to stay at home, it’s now time for people to create a new way of life while being careful.”
A total of 3,000 beds, including 300 for serious cases, have been secured for coronavirus patients, she added. But with only six serious active cases at present, the number of beds reserved for them will be kept at 100 for now to avoid impacting the treatment of other patients.
The central government has also urged sports event organizers to help prevent the spread of the virus when welcoming thousands of fans back into stadiums, by ventilating venues and compiling lists of everyone attending.
Koike held a videoconference Friday with the governors of neighboring Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures, where new infections have increased in line with Tokyo. The number of confirmed cases linked to nightlife establishments in Tokyo’s Kabukicho and Ikebukuro districts has risen recently, according to officials.
On Monday 13 July, the number of reported infections in Tokyo was 119, and on Tuesday 14 July there were 143 cases reported, remaining below 200 for the two days in a row, Gov. Yuriko Koike said.
Koike also said the metropolitan government will look into cluster infections at a theater in the capital after 30 people were reported as testing positive for the virus in less than one week. Tokyo health officials appealed for more than 800 theatergoers to get tested for the coronavirus after a production starring Japanese boy-band members was found to be the source of at least 20 cases.
Last week, Gov. Yuriko Koike won a second term in Sunday’s Tokyo gubernatorial election, vowing to respond firmly to a second wave of the novel coronavirus and coordinate with the International Olympic Committee over the postponed Olympics and Paralympics now scheduled for 2021. “I am very happy, and simultaneously feel the heaviness of the responsibility,” she said in televised remarks as early returns suggested she was on course for a landslide victory.
But Koike, who became the first female governor of the Japanese capital in 2016 after serving as defense minister and environment minister, also said she could not feel completely happy as Tokyo is in the throes of the coronavirus epidemic, with the number of new infections topping 100 Sunday for the fourth straight day.
“This is an important time to be prepared for the second wave of the coronavirus. We want to respond to it firmly,” she said.
- Japan is looking to begin discussions with around 10 countries and regions including China, South Korea and Taiwan next week on easing travel restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, Japanese government sources said Friday.The talks are expected to prioritize allowing businesspeople to enter, with other countries that have the outbreak under control such as Brunei, Myanmar and Laos also under consideration. Japan currently has an entry ban in place for 129 countries and regions, with foreign travelers who have been to any of the areas within 14 days of their arrival being turned away.
Travel to and from Japan has slowed to a trickle since the pandemic began earlier this year. The country saw just 1,700 inbound foreign travelers in May while 5,500 Japanese departed, both down more than 99% from a year earlier, according to government data.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already started discussions with Vietnam, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand on easing travel restrictions, on condition that foreign travelers submit negative COVID-19 test results and an itinerary of where they plan to visit during their stay. Flights to Vietnam partially resumed in June with a chartered plane carrying 150 people.
China and South Korea are expected to pose a larger challenge because of the sheer number of people that could potentially come to Japan, which is still limited in the number of tests it can administer daily. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told a press conference Friday that Japan is looking to hold discussions with countries seeing declining coronavirus infections and with high demand for business trips.
“It won’t take too long for us to begin looking at the second group of countries,” he said. A chartered flight operated by Japan Airlines Co mainly carrying Japanese businesspeople and their families who had evacuated from China following the novel coronavirus outbreak took off Friday for Guangzhou from Narita airport.
The flight carrying 160 people was organized at the request of the local Japanese chamber of commerce. The return of the business community had been hampered by travel restrictions and fewer flights connecting Japan and China despite the world’s second-largest economy reopening production activities after the epidemic subsided.
The Japanese businesspeople had to apply for new visas as China in March introduced a temporary ban on foreigners entering the country, including those who held valid visas or residence permits.
- On Tuesday 14 July Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet decided to use 2.2 billion yen from Japan’s reserve funds for fiscal 2020 to support areas hit hard by torrential rain and flooding this month.The government will use the emergency money to mainly help disaster-affected small businesses as well as the agricultural, forestry and fisheries industries in the southwestern region of Kyushu, including Kumamoto Prefecture where more than 60 people have died, and other areas, officials said.
Finance Minister Taro Aso told a press conference after the cabinet approval that the money will be used to deliver “supplies essential to people’s lives and livelihoods” such as water, food and emergency cardboard beds to ad hoc shelters, and face masks, without waiting for local municipalities to request such help.
The torrential rain struck a wide area of Kyushu Island and western and central regions for about a week from 3 July, with the nationwide death toll topping 70 as of Tuesday, authorities said.
Abe instructed government officials on Monday to compile an aid package worth more than 400 billion yen by the end of this month for devastated areas, after he visited Kumamoto Prefecture the same day.
To boost recovery, the cabinet designated the downpours a special natural disaster, facilitating extensions for completing official procedures such as renewing a driver’s license and business licenses.
In total, 61 municipalities in Kumamoto and five of the country’s other 46 prefectures benefit from the relief measures, which the government implemented for previous large-scale disasters such as heavy rain and flooding in western Japan in 2018, and last year’s Typhoon Hagibis.
The government’s initial budget for the fiscal year has set aside 500 billion yen as a reserve fund, apart from an 11.5 trillion yen fund for measures to fight the new coronavirus pandemic which was earmarked by the country’s two supplementary budgets of more than 50 trillion yen in total for fiscal 2020.
Two people went missing Tuesday morning after a mudslide hit an area in Hiroshima Prefecture, local authorities said. Rescue workers are searching in the city of Higashihiroshima after receiving an emergency call reporting the mudslide around 6 a.m., according to the city government.
- The coronavirus crisis has prompted Japan to ease regulations on remote medical treatment, creating an opening for tech companies and offering a glimpse of the future of healthcare in the world’s most rapidly aging society. As coronavirus cases spiked in April, Japan temporarily eased restrictions on remote medical care, allowing doctors to conduct first-time visits online or by telephone and expanding the number of illnesses that can be treated remotely.The changes mark a potential shake-up in one of the world’s biggest medical markets, which has lagged countries like Australia, China, and the United States in telemedicine. The reforms could also help Japan grapple with both a skyrocketing healthcare burden and few doctors in rural areas.
Previously Japanese doctors were only allowed to treat recurring patients remotely, and for a limited number of diseases. The rapid pace of change caught executives at Line Corp off guard, forcing Japan’s most popular social networking service to accelerate plans for the roll-out of its Line Healthcare business in the coming months.
“The effect that COVID-19 brought was a huge innovation in the healthcare industry,” said Shinichiro Muroyama, representative director of Line Healthcare. “The situation has totally changed, much more rapidly than we thought.” Line, which says it has 84 million users in Japan, aims to link doctors and patients by video.
Homegrown medical start-ups such as Medley Inc and MICIN Inc say they have also seen a surge in demand. Both companies offer application services for appointments, video consultations and payments.
Telehealth, or telemedicine, refers to technology that includes online consultations, cloud-based medical records, remote monitoring of patients and use of artificial intelligence to screen for diseases.
Japan’s market for such technology is set to grow by 60% to nearly 20 billion yen (about €164 million) in the five years to March 2024, according to the Yano Research Institute. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made deregulating the medical industry part of his growth strategy.
So Ishii, a doctor who runs a clinic in Tokyo that started offering telehealth in 2017, has seen a jump in online consultations since the outbreak, with 600 patients using the service as of mid-June compared to 400 two months earlier.
Ishii said telehealth could lead to better treatment for patients with lifestyle-related diseases that require continuous attention because it gave them easier access to doctors. Such ailments typically include diabetes and high-blood pressure.
“Ideally, medical care should be designed to provide necessary support for patients regardless of whether it is online or on site,” he said. About 16,100 Japanese medical institutions excluding dentists – nearly 15% of all such facilities – offered remote medical services, including by telephone, as of early July, according to the health ministry.
That marks substantial growth since July 2018, when only 970 medical institutions were registered to offer online care. Still, the health ministry has not decided whether to make the changes permanent, while the national medical association is less than enthusiastic, citing concerns about misdiagnosis.
“We should be extremely cautious about using evidence drawn from telemedicine in the emergency situation for consideration of how it should be after the coronavirus infection wanes,” Japan Medical Association President Toshio Nakagawa told Reuters. He was vice-president at the time of the interview.
Analysts say telehealth can also put smaller clinics at a financial disadvantage. Goichiro Toyoda, representative director and a medical doctor at Medley, agrees doctors can better check first-time patients in person but says telehealth suits patients who want second opinions, have trouble visiting hospitals or need long-term treatments.
“Telemedicine will not replace face-to-face treatment,” said Toyoda. “But I’ve been stressing the importance of it becoming an option.”
- Japan will begin a subsidy campaign on 22 July to boost domestic tourism hit by the coronavirus, the tourism minister said, although concerns remain over a resurgence of infections.The Go To Travel Campaign will eventually subsidize up to half of expenses, including accommodation and transport fees, with the government initially providing discounts worth 35% of total costs.
The remaining 15% will be covered by coupons to be issued after September, to be used at travel destinations for food, shopping and other travel activities, according to the tourism ministry.
Those who have already made reservations for trips planned from 22 July onward will also receive discounts after returning by applying to the campaign operators, consisting of the Japan Association of Travel Agents and travel agency JTB Corp among others.
“We will be vigilant and closely monitor the virus situation, while avoiding the ‘3Cs’ by cooperating with local municipalities,” said tourism minister Kazuyoshi Akaba, referring to confined spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings, amid a recent surge in confirmed coronavirus cases.
The minister also asked accommodation facilities and travelers to take thorough preventative measures against the virus. Under the campaign, the central government will subsidize up to 20,000 yen per person for each overnight stay, and 10,000 yen for day trips including transportation costs. The state subsidies will be in addition to discounts provided by local municipalities.
The Japan Tourism Agency said it will consider limiting the use of the campaign if promoting domestic trips leads to an increase in the number of new virus cases. “We will respond accordingly to government decisions and expert opinions,” the agency said.
The campaign was initially slated to begin in August, but was moved forward ahead of a four-day national holiday weekend starting from 23 July, according to Akaba. That timing means the campaign will be “very effective,” said an official of a tourism group in Iwate Prefecture, the only prefecture in Japan with no virus case reported.
“But there are people who don’t believe it’s a good idea to invite tourists from other prefectures that have been fighting infections,” the official added. The government’s wider Go To Campaign is aimed at helping local economies that have been struggling due to the pandemic. On top of tourism, it aids restaurants, events and local shopping streets.
The estimated commission costs for the travel campaign, to be paid to a consortium of contractors consisting of seven entities picked from five bidders, total 189.5 billion yen, approximately 40 billion yen less than the maximum amount projected by the government.
The tourism campaign operators will coordinate with accommodation facilities, issue coupons, run advertisements and operate call centers. The government had drawn criticism for the estimated commission fees of up to 309.5 billion yen for the entire Go To Campaign, with critics deeming them a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike was also critical of the campaign. “It is like putting cooling and heating systems on at the same time. I’m not sure how we are supposed to deal with that.”
- The government may ask Tokyo and its neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba to make business suspension requests depending on the extent of the new coronavirus outbreak there, according to economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura.Among the four prefectures in the metropolitan area, Saitama is one step ahead, issuing its own business closure requests beginning Monday to host clubs, hostess bars and other restaurants offering hospitality services that haven’t taken adequate prevention measures.
“To avoid a situation where people flow into the three prefectures if they cannot go out in Tokyo, it would be important for the whole Tokyo metropolitan area to take steps in an integrated manner,” Nishimura, who is in charge of the central government’s response to the virus crisis, told a news conference Sunday. “We have to think about business suspension requests as we monitor the infection situation.”
The minister was referring to business suspension requests prefectural governors are entitled to make based on Article 24 of the revised special measures law to fight new strains of influenza, which now covers the novel coronavirus.
Nishimura welcomed Saitama’s move, calling it “an effective measure.” He said the central government hopes to support such efforts by prefectural governments, also including Tokyo’s initiative to encourage people working at host clubs and other nightlife establishments to undergo polymerase chain reaction tests.
The situation in the metropolitan area has prompted populated areas in other regions, especially Osaka, to be on high alert. The Osaka Prefectural Government on Sunday renewed its call on residents to ensure virus-prevention steps, asking its residents not to visit nightlife entertainment establishments with poor measures against the coronavirus.
Also on Sunday, the prefectural government raised its warning to the “yellow light” phase after the daily cases in the prefecture reached 32 earlier in the day. The system, called the Osaka model, monitors a set of data including the number of new cases with unknown infection routes. If the situation worsens further, the “red light” comes next and the prefectural government would declare a state of emergency.
In Osaka, infections related to nightlife districts account for one-third of the newly confirmed cases from mid-June. Many new cases are young people. “As infections are spreading mainly among young people in nightlife districts, we want relevant businesses to take thorough preventive measures,” Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura told reporters Sunday.