Business executives in Japan are starting to voice concerns over what they see as an unacceptably slow vaccine rollout in one of the world’s richest countries, a rare chorus of warnings over increasing risks to any economic recovery.

"Among developed nations, Japan is the biggest problem,” Takehiko Kakiuchi, chief executive officer of Mitsubishi Corp., said during a recent earnings briefing. As one of the country’s largest trading companies, Mitsubishi has broad visibility across all sectors of the economy, from heavy machinery and petrochemicals, to property and retail.

While Japan has fared better during the pandemic compared with its Western peers — deaths and infection numbers at only a fraction of many developed nations — its vaccine rollout has been shockingly slow. Just 2% of the nation’s population has been inoculated, the lowest among the 37 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker. That compares with about 41% in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

The sluggish rollout is also fueling public concerns over the delayed Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for July 23. A recent opinion poll by the Yomiuri newspaper showed 59% of respondents saying the games should be canceled. At the same time, the metropolis and other big cities are struggling to bring under control a recent wave of new cases caused by the spread of virus variants.

"I really hope that we will see a vaccination acceleration, it’s very important; otherwise you are exposed to new spike in variants,” Christophe Weber, CEO of Japan’s largest drugmaker, Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., said this week. He added that he thought Japan’s vaccination rollout was at the same level as where Europe was a few months ago and expected it to pick up speed soon.

The chorus of complaints over the slow vaccination rollout increased in volume during the earnings season, as many Japanese businesses reported weaker profit and sales for the fiscal year covering the 12 months through March — a period when consumption, production and travel were curtailed as economies went into lockdown to prevent the spread of infections.

"If vaccinations don’t speed up, then tourists won’t return and that impacts how our company recovers,” said Takayuki Yokota, chief financial officer of beauty giant Shiseido Co., which before the pandemic was buoyed by an influx of tourists — many from China — shopping for cosmetics in Japan. It’s unclear when the Japan market recovery would pick up again, he said. "I was on a call with five members of our U.S. team the other day, and all had finished their second shots.”

Frustration is mounting with the slow rollout especially because Japan has access to tens of millions of doses of the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE shot, and isn’t facing supply shortages like some developing countries. Currently, that vaccine is the only one approved for local use and the rollout is limited to health care workers and people age 65 or over.

Facing mounting pressure, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on May 7 that the government will aim to administer a million shots a day, though he didn’t give a target on when that will happen. The daily average of doses administered in the past seven days is around 200,000, up from an average of about 155,000 shots per day in the last week of April, based on the tracker data.

Last month, Japan’s Association of New Economy released a petition calling for speedier and more efficient vaccinations measures. More than 50 executives added their signatures, including Masanori Mochida, the head of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in Japan, and Akio Nitori, CEO of furniture giant Nitori Holdings Co. Most of the signatures are in industries that have been hit hard by pandemic restrictions, such as hotels, dining and alcoholic beverages.

"The Japanese economy needs to bounce back, or things will get difficult,” said Rakuten Group Inc. CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, who created the business group behind the petition. The founder of the e-commerce company said on Thursday he would keep pushing the Suga administration to find better ways to rollout the vaccine and was standing by to help. "The operation is complicated, very complicated, and it’s frustrating.”

Adding to the pain are the current emergency measures to mitigate the current wave of new infections that is once again straining the medical system. Eating and drinking establishments have been asked to stop serving alcohol and many shopping areas are closing early or entirely through the end of May.

It’s no surprise, then, that department store operator Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd. announced its second straight year of losses. Any recovery will depend on the rollout, the retailer’s president Toshiyuki Hosoya said: "If vaccinations proceed like the government has announced, then our earnings should quickly grow.”

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