• Kyodo, staff report

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Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Tuesday the government will consider bringing forward COVID-19 vaccine booster shots for all people as much as possible, amid concern about further spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

In an interview, Kishida said he will make the country's anti-virus measures "fully operational" so people can feel safe at a time when there are still unknowns about the new variant.

Japan has already started giving third shots to health care workers, with elderly people planned to begin receiving theirs early next year.

Japan has not yet seen a surge in omicron cases, but the government remains on alert, barring new entries by almost all foreign visitors and offering free PCR and antigen testing in some areas like Tokyo, where community spread of the omicron variant has been confirmed.

"Besides 31 million health care workers and elderly people, we'd like to consider bringing (the schedule for third shots) forward as much as possible," Kishida said.

Over 77% of the population has received two shots of the COVID-19 vaccine. The government is shortening the interval between second and third shots from eight months to six for health care workers and the elderly.

The vaccines by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. have already been approved in Japan as booster shots. The drugmakers have said third shots will enhance protection against the omicron variant.

The health ministry has approved U.S. pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co.'s orally administered COVID-19 drug last week, the first such pill to be used in Japan.

Kishida has stressed the need to prepare for the worst-case scenario, saying that the nation's border control measures, one of the most stringent among advanced economies, will remain in place for the time being.

He said he wants to carefully examine the infection situation during the year-end and New Year holiday season.

"I will then make a judgment on what to do," he said, while expressing hope the outlook will be positive.

Since taking office in October, Kishida has prioritized bolstering the COVID-19 response while seeking to revitalize the pandemic-hit economy.

On Japan-South Korea relations, Kishida urged South Korea to abide by a 2015 bilateral agreement that settled the issue of so-called comfort women "finally and irreversibly" amid frosty ties between Tokyo and Seoul.

"At least the promise between states must be kept, or any discussion from now on will be meaningless," Kishida said. As then foreign minister, he played an instrumental role in reaching the agreement that settled the comfort women issue "finally and irreversibly."

"Comfort women" is a euphemistic term for women who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II.

The issue, along with a dispute over wartime labor compensation, has sent relations between Japan and South Korea to the lowest point in years.

Tuesday marked the sixth anniversary of the bilateral agreement.

Based on the 2015 accord, Japan paid ¥1 billion ($8.7 million), and the money was distributed through a foundation to former comfort women and the families of those who died.

In 2019, however, the foundation was dissolved after the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in concluded that the deal, reached under a previous government, failed to properly reflect the women's wishes.

Earlier this year, a South Korean court ordered the Japanese government to pay damages to former comfort women, drawing a protest from Japan.

Kishida held a phone conversation with Moon days after taking office in October, urging South Korea to take "appropriate" action. Japan has taken the position that the ball is in South Korea's court.

South Korea's Unification Ministry said Tuesday that Seoul "will not either nullify or renegotiate it" as the agreement is an official one.

But the ministry said the agreement cannot resolve the comfort women issue, urging Japan to make continuous efforts "sincerely" to recover the honor and dignity of the victims and heal their wounds.

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