From November 30 to December 31, 2021, as emergency precautionary measure from a preventive perspective, new entry of foreign nationals is suspended.
As tersely stated above, the Kishida government has reimposed entry restrictions out of fear of the spreading Omicron variant of covid. The strong response has led to an uptick in his public approval, and in a Diet speech last week the prime minister doubled down on his cautious approach: “[W]e have taken the decision to suspend the entry of foreign nationals, applicable to the entire world. I am prepared to bear all the criticism that, although the situation is still not well understood, this is excessively cautious.”
The news has been cause of concern for many, but my Twitter feed has directed my attention to students and their advocates complaining that they’ve been made to wait too long already to begin degree programs or field work in Japan. At least one has said she is withdrawing from the prestigious Japan Foundation fellowship because of the new restrictions.
As an observer, I have to point out that Japan is taking actions not all that different from other major countries, and is right to be cautious about a potentially deadly variant. In that context, letting in foreign students is simply not the top priority now – limiting the spread of COVID is, to first save lives and secondly work to getting society and economic activity back on track for the general public.
At the same time, as the evidence starts to mount that Omicron is NOT a super-variant Captain Trips virus that requires a radical change in approach, once this period is over officials should work as quickly as practical to start reopening again.
I can’t agree with the sentiment voiced by some that Japan’s delays in letting in workers and students are hurting Japan’s national interest. If some students decide to go elsewhere I think it’s a price the country’s policymakers are willing to pay. I’m confident that there will be more applicants to Japan Foundation and other programs.
Is this #crueljapan? I don’t think so, it’s more like indifference in the face of a potentially disastrous result. People stuck with less-than-flexible bureaucracies and other problems have to make the decision that’s right for them, but I can’t help but think it’s a bad idea to call out your former benefactors publicly without a good reason.
Like the students and other would-be entrants to Japan, I too want to visit the country again soon, so I feel like I understand the challenges. When arguing Japan should work to start letting students in, former foreign minister (and as current LDP PR officer holds no real political power at this moment) Kono Taro said recently that the country was not even close to filling its 3,500 people a day quota before 11/30, so as long as it’s safe the government should be able to safely process students.
So I am willing to give the policymakers three more weeks, and encourage everyone else to do the same. If there’s no action after that, I’ll use a slightly less inflammatory hashtag but I’ll also complain that the restrictions are too much.
To help get me back in the swing of writing and following stories I care about, I am going to try a semi-regular post rounding up some of the thoughts I’ve had over the week, and try when I can to offer some niche topic I’m following that other might not be as aware of. Read on for the pilot issue!
This week’s stories:
Suga’s job appears safe despite because, well, would YOU want to be prime minister right now?
Take of the week – Is Rahm Emmanuel the wrong pick as Ambassador to Japan? No, he’s perfect (for me, who looks forward to laughing at him)
Parting shot – A tragically beautiful documentary on how Japan’s first bullet train was built
Nobody wants Suga’s job – who would?
Japan is approaching 12,000 Covid deaths, and although any death is too much, it’s nonetheless a number that so many major countries would kill to have. By the time this thing is over, the US might have more than 600,000. Yikes!
Yet the public at large has scorned the Suga government’s handling of the pandemic (especially for the slow vaccine rollout) as well as his apparent insistence on holding the Olympics this summer come hell or high water.
It just goes to show that the way a leader is judged is completely relative to expectations. I’m reminded of this tweet from late in the 2020 election:
Despite all this, from my standpoint Suga’s job appears to be safe for now, and he may even end up surviving the fall with the public giving him a second chance. Why would I say that?
First off, even with this slow start, vaccines are eventually going to pick up and will really do so come fall. The government has already set a target of fully vaccinating the 65-plus population by the end of July, which seems doable despite the logistical issues (e.g., requiring physicians to administer the shots, something few other major countries are doing. This is just one example where a major country has not had the political will to upend the status quo even in the face of a devastating pandemic…). As we’ve seen in the U.S.
This Nikkei chart shows how vaccines supply went from minuscule amounts through mid-April to more than 15 million every two weeks through May, and supplies are picking up.
And the number of people getting vaccinated has shot up too, now covering more than 4% who have received at least one dose:
Eventually, vaccination progress will lead to reduced cases and give the vaccinated confidence to go back to living their normal lives. And it should translate into a positive for Suga’s approval rating (absent other factors, of course).
Second, the decision on the Olympics is inherently no-win – hold them and risk triggering the highest-profile superspreader event of all time, and even if that doesn’t happen the Japanese public will resent the government for allowing the athletes and staff to receive vaccines before the general public.Cancel them, and you incur the wrath of all the industries and interest groups who stand to lose money on the investments they made premised on having the Olympics (some are looking at truly devastating losses), and to boot it will damage Japan’s image on the world stage (if you care about that sort of thing). Suga negotiated pro-Tokyo Olympics statements in both the recent G7 leaders’ and US-Japan summit, but in both cases they’re carefully worded so that the responsibility for holding a safe and secure Games decision remains completely in Japan’s court, so to speak.
All signs point to Japan powering through and holding the Games. But whichever the case, by the time Suga is up for reelection as LDP president in September the Olympics will be in the rear-view mirror, whether they take place or not.
Finally, and most importantly, no one wants the Prime Minister’s job, at least not now. Suga has been dealt a very crappy hand, and he certainly deserves some blame. But precisely because the situation looks so bad, there hasn’t been anyone within the LDP expressing a lack of confidence or (afaik) actively exploring ways to challenge Suga in the fall. Of course that could change if the overall environment improves, but every day people sit on the sidelines is a good day for Suga. Right now none of the people who might gun for it (Shinjiro Koizumi, Taro Kono, Shigeru Ishiba, Fumio Kishida, etc.) are in a position to do so, and the opposition parties still have not managed to capitalize on what seems to be a real weakness in the ruling coalition.
So I would count as slim to none their chances of winning the lower house election that must be called by October (famous last words!).
Quick closing note: The major opposition party has never managed to consistent crack 10 percent public support since Abe came into office in 2012; in NHK’s most recent poll 33.7% supports the LDP and just 5.8% supported the Constitutional Democrats; the largest bloc of voters by far is “do not support any party” at 43% which adds an element of uncertainty to the upcoming Lower House election).
Take of the week – Is Rahm Emmanuel a mistake as Ambassador to Japan?
I’ve been bemused at the idea of appointing Rahm Emmanuel as Ambassador to Japan, as has been widely reported Biden will do.
First off, what an insult to the groups who fought him during his stint as mayor where he covered up after a police shooting. I’m no veteran, but I certainly have never heard of a 20-group coalition forming to vigorously oppose an ambassador appointment. The group’s statement is worth reading in full to see how thoroughly they’re dunking on him. It almost looks like they’re having fun taking turns having a go:
National NAACP President Derrick Johnson said: “As the former mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel has shown us that he is not a principled leader or person. His time in public service proved to be burdened with preventable scandal and abandonment of Chicago’s most vulnerable community.”
Let’s hope Rahm will bring that kind of energy to his time in Japan!
Clearly, I don’t think Rahm should be the ambassador – hell he shouldn’t even be allowed to manage a McDonald’s.
But part of me wants him to get in there… I mean, how funny will it be when the Ambassador tells Taro Aso to shut the fuck up before he even knows who he is, only for the incident to leak via an anonymous Japanese government source?
Rahm is famous for throwing principle out the window to get a deal done (see his willingness to cut social security to secure a “grand bargain” under Obama). Would he go off the reservation and persuade Japan to move Futenma Air Base to the Senkaku Islands? The only way to find out is to send Rahm to Tokyo.
Well, that’s all for now. Until next week?
Parting shot: This documentary makes me weep for all bullet trains the US never built:
So I’m back in the United States, and friends and family ask me over coffee and drinks: how many people live in Tokyo? The answer requires explanation — some sources say 8 million, others say 12.5 million, others 34.5 million. It’s not that the Japanese census is that unreliable. Instead, distinctions must be carefully made between the 23 wards of Tokyo, Tokyo Metropolis/Prefecture, and the Greater Tokyo Area.
Tokyo is the de facto capital of Japan, but there’s nothing in law that defines this as such. Tokyo is also the only prefecture called a “metropolis,” but there is no legal difference between Tokyo and other prefectures. The prefecture is made up of villages and cities, the same as any other prefecture, except that in the east the municipalities are called ku, or “wards.”
These 23 wards are just ordinary municipalities that are functionally the same as a city, but exist under a different name as a holdover from the pre-war local government regime. There is no unifying body or collective unit that binds these 23 wards together apart from the rest of Tokyo prefecture, but these 23 wards are collectively considered to be the heart of urban Tokyo. The population of Tokyo prefecture is about 12.5 million; the 23 wards have a collective population of about 8.5 million.
The capital of Japan; the green dot in the center of the map is the Imperial Palace.
But as the above map shows, the borders don’t mean the city stops. In many ways, nearby cities Chiba, Kawasaki, and Yokohama share more in common with the 23 wards than the mountains in western Tokyo Prefecture. And the three neighboring prefectures of Saitama, Kanagawa, and Chiba are therefore often included in the definition of Greater Tokyo, or Shuto Ken.
Tokyo’s 12.5 million people, Kanagawa’s 9 million, Saitama’s 7 million, and Chiba’s 6 million make for a combined total of 34.5 million people in this greater block, which is about 25% of Japan’s entire population concentrated in one area.
The four prefectures of Greater Tokyo
So that’s the short answer to the question that makes up this post title.
For those of you unable to enjoy hanami cherry blossom viewing today, you can live vicariously and see people enjoying the hanami at Shinjuku Gyouen in Tokyo on Google Maps. (I’ll be there later today!)