Japan minister aims to control COVID while achieving growth

TOKYO (AP) — The Japanese minister responsible for containing COVID-19 while steering the world’s third largest economy toward growth says he is confident he can carry out that precarious “balancing act.”

“We know infectious diseases aren’t going away ever,” Daishiro Yamagiwa said Wednesday at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo. “Co-existing with them while revitalizing the economy toward growth is our job,” he said.

Japan had managed to cut new infections to very low levels last fall, then loosening precautions mean to keep the virus at bay. But medical experts warn it should expect a surge of COVID infections in the next few weeks. Daily reported cases are totaling several thousand nationwide, roughly tripling from last week.

Japan has responded flexibly against its “invisible enemy,” setting up a system of quarantines at home for those sick with the omicron variant of coronavirus, instead of hospitalization for all, and speeding up vaccine boosters, said Yamagiwa, a veterinarian and graduate of the prestigious Yamaguchi University.

Boosters have lagged in Japan, compared to the U.S., South Korea and parts of Europe. Although about 80% of Japanese have received two shots, fewer than 1% have gotten a booster.

Most people are not expected to get booster shots until after March, possibly weeks or months longer than the recommended six-month gap after the second COVID-19 shot.

Critics have long said Japan needs to break out of entrenched bureaucracy and vested interests to reinvent itself and become more dynamic and competitive.

Yamagiwa said Japan needs to nurture digital technology, artificial intelligence, sustainability and biotechnology to break out of the decades-old doldrums that have worsened with the pandemic.

The Japanese economy is expected to grow in the current fiscal year, which ends in March, after contracting last year. But the latest wave of infections adds to uncertainty.

“Like many other countries in Asia, Japan’s latest GDP data demonstrate that COVID is still exerting a strong influence on the economy,” said Robert Carnell, regional head of research, at ING, noting restrictions on people’s activity have dampened spending, trade and investment.

The government recently ordered restrictions in Okinawa, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima prefectures, where COVID surges have been most serious.

Throughout his presentation, Yamagiwa returned to the theme of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s “new capitalism” platform.

While critics say it’s just a slogan and is scarce on specifics. Yamagiwa said the government will work to raise wages, invest in people and nurture startups and research.

He acknowledged Japan has fallen behind other leading economies in digitization, market capitalization of companies and even Nobel laureates.

But he said Japan had what he called “moonshot” goals, including leading the world in avatar technology by 2050 and investing in a Japanese university so it “becomes a Stanford.”

“Japan will become No. 1 in the world,” he said.


Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter https://twitter.com/yurikageyama