Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga offered few new details in Diet sessions this week about how his administration will fight the raging coronavirus pandemic, and defended it from criticism that its actions had been too little, too late.
Taking heat from one opposition lawmaker after another during the three days of question-and-answer sessions, the prime minister largely stuck to a prepared manuscript, giving explanations he had already shared. Suga expressed determination to stamp out infections using the state of emergency already declared across 11 prefectures, and a vaccine rollout that could begin as early as mid-February.
More fast-paced debates began Friday afternoon at a meeting of the budget committee, with the administration hoping to pass a ¥21.8 trillion third supplementary budget by next week. The opposition is expected to ramp up its attacks on Suga’s administration, which has seen its approval ratings plunge.
Here are some major highlights of the Diet sessions this week.
Government’s COVID-19 response
Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, blasted the prime minister for neglecting to halt the Go To programs and issue an emergency declaration earlier, despite advice from public health experts and suggestions by opposition lawmakers to that effect in November.
“The Go To programs on which the prime minister is fixated recommend people travel and dine out using taxpayers’ money,” Edano said. “There has been concern from the beginning that they would worsen the infection situation if they were forced to continue … why have you fallen this far behind?”
In response, Suga defended the administration’s course of action, which ultimately saw him compelled to postpone the stimulus programs and impose restrictions on business hours, saying he had been making decisions after consulting with experts. He even addressed Edano’s criticism directly, saying, “I don’t believe the actions were delayed because of optimistic views without basis.”
Edano was also against the government’s proposal to introduce a prison term for COVID-19 patients who refuse to be hospitalized, as part of changes to the law on preventing infectious disease. The legal penalty goes too far, he said, adding that the government must step up to address existing gaps before introducing compulsory measures. Suga said the government would be mindful of human rights, but did not retract the idea of introducing legal penalties.
Mindful of criticism that the largest opposition party does nothing but criticize, Edano proposed three policy pillars that could curb the pandemic, with a combination of stronger support for hospitals, robust compensation to ensure businesses do not go bankrupt, and the early detection of cases and isolation of virus carriers.
Suga repeatedly said throughout the sessions that the government was working to roll out the country’s first COVID-19 vaccine with domestic approval by late February.
“Additionally, we’re making various efforts so that inoculation can begin as soon as possible,” Suga said Wednesday, raising speculation that the rollout could be earlier than the late February time scale mentioned elsewhere.
Vaccines would be prioritized for health care workers, older people and individuals with pre-existing conditions. In response to a question Thursday from Yuichiro Tamaki of the Democratic Party for the People, Suga said he would be immunized “once it’s my turn” and after health care workers are vaccinated — eliciting laughter from lawmakers in the Lower House chamber for having identified himself as a senior citizen.
On Wednesday night, the health ministry announced the government had signed a deal with Pfizer Inc. to procure enough vaccines for 72 million people within this year. The prime minister has tapped Taro Kono, the minister for administrative affairs, to oversee the complicated task of distributing vaccines to the public.
On Thursday, Suga revealed his eagerness to tie My Number social security and taxation identification cards — apparently a pet program for the prime minister — into the vaccination effort. In the Upper House session, he said he hoped to use the cards to keep track of who had been vaccinated. The government, though, clarified that My Number cards would not be required for vaccination.
On Wednesday, Suga condemned in his strongest terms to date the Jan. 6 insurrection led by supporters of then-U.S. President Donald Trump at the United States Capitol building. The remark came on the last day of Trump’s tumultuous presidency, local time.
“In any democratic country, a peaceful transition of power is important and subverting an election result with violence is utterly unacceptable,” he said when pressed by Edano to comment on the violent events in Washington.
Suga, like his predecessor former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has refrained from using harsh tones to criticize Trump in fear of antagonizing him and being subject to retribution. He told reporters Thursday morning at the Prime Minister’s Office that he hopes to work with President Joe Biden on global issues such as climate change and the novel coronavirus, and to advance efforts toward a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
In response to a question from Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi on Friday morning, the prime minister reiterated his resolution to solidify Japan-U.S. relations “even further” by working with the Biden administration on the response to the pandemic, environmental concerns and regional issues, and he also mentioned Iran.
Edano rebuked the administration over Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi’s failure last year to correct Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a joint news conference, when Wang launched into a tirade insisting that the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, known as Diaoyu in Chinese, belong to China. Suga rushed to Motegi’s defense, insisting that the foreign minister did object to Wang’s remarks immediately after the news conference closed doors.
On Russia, Edano questioned Suga over whether Japan has been stonewalled by President Vladimir Putin on negotiations over the Northern Territories dispute, saying that the Russian president appeared dismissive of prospects for holding talks. Suga said the negotiations had been ongoing.
The Olympic Games expected to take place in Tokyo this summer are another topic that came up during questions from lawmakers.
Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a power broker said to have paved the way for Suga to become leader, stated that the summer Olympics and Paralympics will go ahead. Nikai on Wednesday echoed Suga’s insistence on hosting the games, saying that their success “will lead to supporting athletes and inspiring children worldwide” by providing hope.
On Thursday, Japanese Community Party leader Kazuo Shii called for the sporting event to be scrapped altogether, and for the resources to be reassigned to prioritize COVID-19 relief.
“Against the backdrop of a worsening novel coronavirus crisis, more than 80% of the public is calling for cancellation or postponement (of the Olympics), according to opinion polls. On what basis does the prime minister say it is possible to hold the Olympics,” Shii asked, dismissing the government’s optimistic plan of going ahead with the plan by relying on vaccines.
In response, Suga said that the use of vaccines was not a prerequisite for hosting the games, and vowed again to proceed with preparations for a “safe and secure” Olympics.
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