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Author: Jun Mukoyama, Asia Pacific Initiative

A newly established digital agency was unveiled in Japan on 1 September 2021. The agency, located in an Akasaka skyscraper, is unprecedented in every way. Under the direct supervision of the prime minister, with 120 of its 500 officials hired from the private sector, the new agency has the authority to manage IT system budgets across Japanese government ministries.

Compared with many of its Western peers, Japan has managed the COVID-19 crisis relatively well given its population size and ageing population. But there was one critical aspect of outbreak management in which Japan failed: the effective use of data and technology. In July 2020, then health minister Katsunobu Kato lamented that the greatest challenge in responding to the COVID-19 crisis was the ‘delay in digital transformation’. Creating the agency was one of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s key policy pledges from day one of his administration. It was designed to overcome ‘the defeat in the digital war’. The new digital agency carries the heavy burden of wiping away the stain of this failure.

For many countries, technology plays an essential part in fighting the pandemic. In Japan, technology has been a weakness, not a strength. COVID-19 response experts from Japan’s health ministry faced difficulties collecting accurate and real-time data, such as the number of cases and vacant hospital beds. Precious time and resources were used to confirm numbers with local authorities by telephone and manually input data into computers.

Fax machines were used to exchange hand-written information among medical institutions, regional public-health centres and local governments. Japanese local governments spent months delivering cash grants to their citizens while developed countries such as Germany, South Korea and the United States swiftly — sometimes in a matter of days — completed payments using digital platforms.

System developments during …continue reading

    

Japan's Ambassador to Bangladesh, Ito Naoki takes a selfie next to the metro rail at the Diabari depot Uttara. Bangladesh's first-ever metro rail train on its test run in Dhaka's Uttara (Photo: Md Manik/SOPA Images/Sipa USA/ Reuters).

Author: Shaikh Abdur Rahman, CFISS

As the world continues to struggle with the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bangladesh has been able to maintain economic growth with the help of its readymade garment sector and foreign remittances. But it has also relied significantly on assistance from its development partners, including Japan.

Immediately after Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, Japan lent Dhaka a helping hand to reconstruct the war-torn country. Bangladesh and Japan started diplomatic relations on 10 February 1972. Since then, the two countries have enjoyed a fruitful and trustworthy relationship. Japan is one of Bangladesh’s largest development partners and a vital source of aid as the country attempts to graduate from least developed country status by 2026 and become a developed country by 2041.

Bangladesh’s bilateral relations with Japan range from socio-economic to people-to-people links. But the relationship can be further strengthened through signing a free trade agreement (FTA), accelerating investments in special economic zones (SEZs), cooperating on vaccine co-production and supporting each other in multilateral fora.

Over the last decade, Bangladesh has been able to maintain an average growth rate of 6.6 per cent. Japan has provided loans and grants for infrastructural development projects in Bangladesh, notably for the Mass Rapid Transit in Dhaka and Matarbari Port. Under the strategic ‘Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt’ scheme, Japan sees Bangladesh as a gateway to South and Southeast Asia. At the same time, Bangladesh is actively focusing on its ‘Look East’ policy to accelerate its economic and infrastructure development.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, mega projects including the Padma Multipurpose Bridge, Metro Rail project and Matarbari Port are moving ahead at full speed. China, India and Russia — Bangladesh’s three largest development partners — are interested in utilising Bangladesh’s strategic and economic advantages. These include the …continue reading

    

A collapsed wall by a strong earthquake is pictured in Kunimi, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, 14 February 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Kyodo).

Author: Daniel P Aldrich, Northeastern University

Until recently, it may have been hard for the average person to grasp how deadly and damaging disasters and shocks can be. No longer. Few anywhere in the world have emerged from the past year and a half without a strong appreciation of the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Along with COVID-19 taking more than 4.5 million lives and upending health systems, business revenue and global logistics, other acute and long-term shocks and stressors have affected communities around the world, including bushfires in Australia, North America and Europe, lethal heatwaves in Oregon, and mudslides in Japan.

Policymakers often respond to disasters by falling back on standard responses involving physical infrastructure and megaprojects. Extreme weather events such as flooding and heatwaves are among the most common disasters. In Japan, central and regional government officials have pushed for the construction of massive concrete seawalls and tetrapods to protect coastal communities.

Japan is one among many nations that instinctively turn to such solutions when seeking to mitigate climate change and rising seas. Venice relies on Project MOSE with its inflatable floodgates to reduce flooding in La Serenissima. Boston considered a US$11 billion seawall to try to reduce the impact of regular flooding during king tides.

Politicians and bureaucrats rely on the standard approach of building physical infrastructure in response to disasters for several reasons. First, physical infrastructure provides a visible, tangible symbol of ‘doing something’ for those seeking re-election. Second, cost benefit analyses can more easily estimate the outcome of a physical structure than less tangible projects. Third, the construction industry has a strong and successful history of successful lobbying for new work. Fourth, alternative, non-physical …continue reading

    

Anti-Olympic protesters flock in front of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's office, Tokyo, Japan, 29 July 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Androniki Christodoulou).

Author: Ben Ascione, Waseda University

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s decision to hold the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games under the one-year postponement plan inherited from the Abe administration revolved around his need to face a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election in September and a lower-house election by October. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, proceeding with the Games was intended to protect Suga, who lacks a factional base in the LDP, from the threat of internal challengers.

The critical question was what level of infection control and vaccinations were needed to safely hold the Games without stretching Tokyo’s medical system? And what sort of measures would prevent spill over infections from the ‘Olympic bubble’? When pressed for details the Suga government insisted that Japan would hold a ‘safe and secure’ Games, evaded establishing definitive criteria for success and moved the goal posts when new information came to light.

The head of the Tokyo Medical Association, Haruo Ozaki, suggested in May that Tokyo needed to bring daily cases below 100 to safely hold the Games — advice that was ignored. A simulation presented at a Tokyo Olympic Organising Committee expert roundtable in June predicted that infections in Tokyo would increase to about 1000 per day in late August if the Games went ahead, compared with 800 a day if they were postponed or cancelled. A Tokyo Metropolitan Government monitoring meeting in July estimated that daily infections would reach 2400 by 11 August. These two scenarios were thought to be acceptable.

On vaccinations, Japan was too slow to reach anywhere near herd immunity before the Games. It was the slowest among the G7 to procure vaccines while its rollout …continue reading

    

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga makes an announcement on a large screen in Tokyo, 9 September 2021 (Photo: Yoshio Tsunoda/AFLO via Reuters).

Author: Editorial Board, ANU

Japan has entered election season with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) presidential election on 29 September and the lower house election in late October or November. After succeeding Shinzo Abe less than one year ago, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced on 3 September that he won’t contest the LDP election and will step down at the end of the month. The race for Japan’s next prime minister is wide open.

Suga’s downfall is a reminder that there is no escape from the public’s top priority of effectively handling COVID-19. His government’s pandemic policy has been characterised by missteps and poor communication with the public.

As Rikki Kersten explains in our lead article this week, Suga’s record on COVID-19 got off to a poor start when he… ‘forged ahead with the Go To Travel campaign which provided government subsidies for domestic travel to stimulate economic recovery. He was forced by spikes in infections to temporarily suspend the program on four occasions’.

On vaccines, Kersten explains, the report card for Suga was ‘must try harder’. Procurement ‘was slow and logistical obstacles held up the vaccine rollout’. Japan’s protectionist regulations required a local trial, which involved just 160 people, even though Pfizer had already conducted large-scale trials with tens of thousands of people.

Japan’s rollout eventually accelerated and over 49 per cent of the population are now fully vaccinated. But the public was frustrated as less than a quarter of the population were fully vaccinated when the Olympics began on 23 July and the prevalence of the Delta variant in Tokyo skyrocketed from about 20 per cent of cases in early July to almost 90 per cent in early August. As hospitals reached capacity, the government announced that only COVID-19 patients with … …continue reading

    

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga leaves after a news conference at his office in Tokyo, Japan, 9 September 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool).

Author: Rikki Kersten, ANU

In the time of COVID-19, competence in managing the pandemic is a vital criterion for reward or punishment at the polls for democratic leaders. This is politically tricky enough to manage on its own. Add hosting the Olympics during a pandemic and being a transitional leader, and you’re in the unique world of political pain that was the ultimate fate of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

When Suga failed to gain a popularity boost from the postponed Tokyo Olympics, it not only threw the electoral schedule into sharp relief for the ruling coalition but it also threw Suga under a bus. When his popularity sunk to the political death zone of an approval rating of 27 per cent Suga accepted that the compressed post-Olympic electoral schedule meant that he had to go. On 3 September Suga duly announced that he would not run for the leadership on 29 September, setting the stage for a new prime minister to lead the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) into Japan’s general election.

How will things be different for Suga’s successor?

The selection of the new LDP leader is hostage to two counterveiling forces. One is the visceral desire on the part of the parliamentary party to ‘save the furniture’ in the pending general election (which is scheduled to be called no later than 21 October). The other is the rising pressure within the party to shift towards generational change. In selecting the next party president and future prime minister, the LDP must try to satisfy both if Japan is to avoid political instability, and a return of ‘revolving door’ prime ministers.

Whoever’s in the hotseat, the management of COVID-19 will be key. Whatever else, Suga’s successor must demonstrate bureaucratic competence in pandemic management in the eyes of a COVID-jaded electorate. This is especially important because …continue reading

    

Fumio Kishida, Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker and former foreign minister, shows his notebook during a news conference as he announces his candidacy for the party's presidential election in Tokyo, Japan, 26 August 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato).

Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW

Following Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s announcement that he will soon step down, one of the frontrunners for Japan’s premiership is Fumio Kishida, a politician who has long been waiting in the wings for the presidency of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Kishida made his first bid for LDP president and prime minister last year, only to be beaten by Suga.

Kishida ticks all the traditional boxes for holding the two top positions in Japanese politics. He has strong political and policy credentials. He is an LDP faction leader and a hereditary politician with a long political pedigree. Kishida is also a former cabinet minister, holding the position of foreign minister longer than any other Japanese politician in post-war history. He has also demonstrated substantial intra-party policy leadership as chairman of the LDP’s top policymaking body, the Policy Affairs Research Council.

Kishida’s ambitions have been demonstrated by a series of well-organised, widely publicised public policy pronouncements in recent weeks. These have included ‘reforming the LDP’ by removing the ability of those in top positions in the party to wield too much power for too long.

His specific target in this case was LDP Secretary-General and faction leader Toshihiro Nikai, a kingmaker originally appointed by Abe, who has served in the position for the past five years. Abe appointed him against the wishes of the Kishida faction in 2016, expecting Nikai to play an important role in smoothing opposition to policy initiatives coming from the prime minister’s office and blocking generational change in the LDP by denying Kishida.

The Nikai faction is a completely top-down organisation, with Nikai’s orders considered ‘absolute’ amongst its members. The core of Kishida’s political strategy is reportedly to remove Nikai, a polarising figure …continue reading

    

Welcome to the SoraHouse.

We’re cheap.

We’re guessing you already knew that about us. After all, we’re the people who bought the cheapest car in Japan, stayed at the cheapest hotel in Japan, and ate the cheapest pasta bento in Japan…and did it all with smiles on our faces.

So when we decided that we wanted a house, one where we could enjoy the natural beauty and relaxed pace of Japanese countryside living, you’d be right to assume we didn’t want to spend a lot of money on it. But when we found this house in the mountains of Saitama, the prefecture that borders Tokyo to the north, for just one million yen (US$9,100), it was a deal too sweet to pass up, so we bought it!

▼ SoraNews24 founder Yoshio, posing with the SoraHouse

That price may sound too low to be true, and if we’re being completely honest, we didn’t pay actually one million yen for the house…we paid 100,000 yen (US$910) for it. The remaining 900,000 yen was for the land is sits and the other structures on the property, brining the total for everything up to one million yen.

“OK, but at that price, this has got to be just a teeny, tiny shack, right?” you might be thinking. Nope! This is a two-story house with a total of 131 square meters (1,410 square feet) of floor space.

▼ The first floor is set up in a classical Japanese farmhouse style, with groves to put sliding doors/partitions around a central living room

…continue reading

    

Haruhiko Kuroda, governor of the Bank of Japan, and Taro Aso, Japan's deputy prime minister and finance minister, Fukuoka, Japan 9 June 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon)

Author: William N Kring, Boston University

As the more lethal and contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 rips across the globe, the prospects of multilateral efforts to combat the virus, tackle the looming global debt crisis and mount a sustainable economic recovery are dim. Nowhere is the insufficiency of the multilateral response more apparent than on the issue of debt relief.

Before the crisis, 46 countries were spending more of their resources on debt service payments than on health care. As the COVID-19 pandemic began to wreak havoc on the global economy, the G20 responded by announcing the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) during World Bank and IMF meetings in April 2020. The DSSI allowed low-income countries (LICs) to temporarily suspend their debt payments through to December 2020, a measure that has since been extended through to December 2021.

The DSSI has been criticised for failing to compel all creditors to participate. Of 73 eligible LICs, only 45 beneficiary countries have sought to suspend debt payments to official bilateral creditors. Since only a limited scope of debt service is covered, deferred debt service through July 2021 totalled only US$4.6 billion.

In April 2021, the G20 also developed a ‘Common Framework for Debt Treatment beyond Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI)‘ to facilitate negotiations over debt restructuring for LICs. While the measures adopted by the G20 are unprecedented, only Chad, Ethiopia and Zambia have applied for the framework and restructuring measures have not gone nearly far enough. LICs that apply for the framework are likely to be downgraded, as Ethiopia recently experienced.

Despite these shortcomings, the communique released following the July 2021 …continue reading

    

Panic buying takes hold of Japan once more, only this time it’s for oxygen.

How should we keep safe against the coronavirus? Arguably, the most science-backed method would be to get vaccinated, like our reporters at SoraNews24 have.

But while more and more people here in Japan are receiving their shots, some people are looking for other ways to keep safe, like panic-buying and hoarding. Panic-buying isn’t something new, or even exclusive to Japan — the No Toilet Paper Era is sure to remain in our memories for years to come.

Japan had a pretty big flour shortage last year as well, but while brick and mortar stores were flour-free, a quick glance on Japanese flea market app Mercari saw unscrupulous users offer bags of flour for sale at a significantly higher price than normal.

▼ Enjoy this cake, because the ingredients cost a small fortune.

A year on, flour stock seems to have returned to normal, but Mercari has a new hot ticket item that users are rushing to buy — canned oxygen. Usually used by athletes, mountain climbers, and those who need an oxygen boost after a workout, oxygen cans have been flying off the shelves in shops as COVID-19 cases surge.

Naturally, with any “high demand low supply” item, Mercari users have started rubbing their hands in anticipation of some quick cash grabs. According to retailers Iwatani, a normal can of oxygen sells for about 700 yen (US$6.40), but listings on the site have asked for tens of thousands of yen for them.

The representative of the manufacturer was perplexed, saying, “We have had a surge of inquiries about oxygen canisters this month, and since they are not for medical …continue reading