The coronavirus pandemic has exposed Japan’s fragility in the digital realm and the need for a quick, broad solution to supply chain issues, the top government spokesman said.

In a group media interview that touched on an array of topics Friday evening, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato stressed the necessity of promoting digitalization in both the public and private sectors, noting that glitches caused a delay in the handout of subsidies to firms as part of the government’s coronavirus rescue plan.

Kato, who was most recently the health minister under Shinzo Abe, also touched on the government’s effort to push telemedicine but noted that the government needs to evaluate the outcome instead of simply being obsessed with efforts to reform.

Kato’s remarks echo Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s enthusiasm to advance digitalization across government agencies. Suga has instructed bureaucrats to work on legislation on establishing a digital agency. A bill is expected to be submitted to next year’s ordinary Diet session.

Kato also emphasized enhancing Japan’s supply chain to avoid relying overwhelmingly on a single source, pointing to the severe mask shortage at the start of the outbreak due to an overdependence on imports from China.

“We think it’s a necessity for all of us in society, including the government, to advance reform and make a necessary and concentrated investment from the standpoint of evaluating and rebuilding the supply chain,” Kato said.

He added that the government is ready to take additional economic measures to spur consumption, which was heavily hit by the pandemic.

World leaders are struggling to strike a balance between public health and the economy. As of Saturday evening, Japan reported that over 85,000 people have been infected and around 1,600 people have died from the virus.

The government has apparently shifted its priority to the economy, with travel to and from Tokyo now eligible for subsidies in the Go To Travel campaign.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato speaks during an interview with media outlets on Friday in Tokyo. | KYODO
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato speaks during an interview with media outlets on Friday in Tokyo. | KYODO

Essentially assuming the dual role as the government’s top spokesperson and Suga’s chief of staff, Kato is expected to carry on agenda-setting authority spearheaded by the Prime Minister’s Office, which was strengthened under Abe. Observers have said that filling Suga’s shoes as chief Cabinet secretary will be an enormous task — Suga held the post under Abe since 2012. Kato’s appointment to one of the most important roles in the Cabinet reflects Suga’s confidence in his deftness as a coordinator and in delivering clear, to-the-point messages. Kato was deputy chief Cabinet secretary from 2012 to 2015.

The role is viewed as an important prerequisite for becoming prime minister, as Suga, Abe and Yasuo Fukuda have shown. When Kato was the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s general council chairman in 2018, he hinted that he aspired to one day lead the nation, telling reporters, “it’s natural for politicians to always seek a high place.”

Asked about it again Friday evening, Kato expressed similar sentiments, saying he is determined to fulfill his responsibility and polish his skills.

Kato is also in charge of the government’s endeavors to repatriate Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s, an issue that the administration positions as among its highest priorities. He restated remarks by Suga at the United Nations General Assembly, where the prime minister said he is ready to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without conditions.

“The environment surrounding North Korea has been moving on various fronts, but it’s important to always create an environment where we dedicate all of our strengths at the right time without missing any opportunities,” he said.

On expanding the foreign workforce, Kato said the Suga administration would continue his predecessor’s efforts to actively recruit workers from overseas.

As of July this year, only 6,669 people are designated as special skilled workers, a legal status given to foreign nationals who hold jobs “that require considerable knowledge of or experience in specific fields,” including agriculture, construction and industrial machinery. The government initially set the expectation of accommodating 47,500 people for the status in fiscal 2019.

“We’re hoping to create an environment that would make non-Japanese citizens eager to work in our country by (resolving impediments) and coordinating with relevant government agencies,” Kato said.

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