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Outbreak, economic ills dim luster of Japan’s Olympic year

by Ace Damon
Outbreak, economic ills dim luster of Japan's Olympic year

TOKYO (AP) – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to be the center of attention this year on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Instead, the virus outbreak that has spread from China to remote parts of Japan has caused Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party defended the defense.

Abe has gone through several scandals since taking office in late 2012, promising "Make Japan Great Again". A relatively strong economy, robust stock prices and the absence of strong political rivals allowed him to remain the country's oldest prime minister, with a solid majority coalition.

But at a time when the country should prepare for the mass celebration of its first Summer Olympics since 1964, Abe and his government are facing criticism from inside and outside Japan about how they handled the outbreak. This is particularly true in handling Tokyo's Diamond Princess, a cruise ship quarantined off the coast of Yokohama, while an increasing number of its 3,700 passengers and crew have fallen ill or been evacuated.

Japan's economy contracted 6.3% in the last quarter of 2019, after an October 1 sales tax hike hurt demand at a time when exports were already languishing thanks to the U.S. trade war and trade friction between Tokyo and neighboring South Korea. The momentum Abe gained from rising stock prices at the start of his first term, when the Nikkei 225 stock index more than doubled in 2013-2015, declined with the index on a plateau in the past two years.

With the virus outbreak, tourism ended with the cancellation of tens of thousands of flights. Chinese tourists, the mainstay of regional travel, with nearly 10 million visiting Japan in 2019, are far away now that the virus has spread beyond the cruise ship to Okinawa, Wakayama and other relatively remote parts of the country, as well as Tokyo.

"Many things are going wrong simultaneously, not just for Abe, but for Japan as a whole," said Michael Cucek, assistant professor of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo. "It is a concatenation of things."

As of Friday, Japan had recorded three deaths and 727 cases of the new virus, including 634 from the cruise ship. The last passengers on cruise ships that tested negative for the virus were expected to disembark after a prolonged quarantine on board that provoked criticism due to the tight blocks and the difficulty of isolating the sick from the healthy. Six health workers, including government officials, contracted the virus, raising questions about the effectiveness of the protective measures used.

“Basically, a ship's quarantine is a kind of 19th century strategy. But it was probably difficult to make any kind of decision, ”said Hitoshi Oshitani, professor of virology at the Faculty of Medicine at Tohoku University. "The issue of cruise ships is getting bigger and bigger as a political issue."

The coronavirus crisis came home just as Abe's supporters were preparing to try to change the rules to allow him a fourth three-year term after his current term ends next year. As the numbers affected by the virus have increased, their popularity ratings have dropped.

A recent survey by the Kyodo News service showed that support ratings for Abe's office this month fell 8.3 points in January, with only 36% of respondents satisfied with government measures to contain the outbreak.

"Nagatacho turmoil: will Abe's super-long government finally end?" asked a headline in the Presidente business magazine.

Abe's opponents accused him of being "kind" to China and trying to avoid offending Beijing before Chinese leader Xi Jinping's planned visit to Tokyo in April, postponing travel restrictions during the Lunar New Year holidays in late January, when it was already clear the outbreak was spreading from its epicenter in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

Shu Watanabe, of the opposition Democratic People's Party, accused the government of not having a sense of crisis. A welcome message posted on the website of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing saying "We are looking forward to receiving many Chinese visitors visiting Japan", made "everyone wondering what the hell Japan is doing," said Watanabe. The message has already been removed.

Asked on Thursday in parliament about the number of Chinese still visiting or transiting through Japan, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said it would be "impossible to prevent 100% arrival" of arrivals. He diverted requests to assess the effectiveness of the quarantine measures.

Japan's leaders have improved their crisis management since the 2011 triple nuclear tsunami disaster, but the reluctance to take swift and decisive action remains a chronic problem, says Cucek.

“They have crisis plans. They have crisis training, but a crisis also requires leadership, ”he said. "This is what is missing, people who are willing to make difficult decisions."

With the future so uncertain and many events being limited or postponed, some in Japan are calling for the Olympics to be postponed or moved elsewhere, following the example of many other major events, including the Liberal Democrats congress, planned for March 8 and postponed for now.

So far, Abe and other government officials have insisted that the Games, with 11,000 competitors and billions of dollars in investments from television and other sponsors, will continue as planned in July, despite cancellations of several preliminary events and many other non-Olympic events. .

Asked on Friday whether the government would consider postponing the Olympics or postponing them, Abe's chief secretary in office, Yoshihide Suga, said Japan has "full confidence" in the International Olympic Committee.

"We intend to continue working closely with the IOC and the Tokyo metropolitan government to ensure that the Olympics are held in a way that ensures that athletes and spectators can participate safely," said Suga.

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Kurtenbach contributed from Bangkok.

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