The Japanese Diet opened Monday with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga vowing to go ahead with preparations to hold the Tokyo Olympics this summer, in the face of growing public opposition amid a surge in COVID-19 infections across the country.
In his first policy speech at the Diet's regular session since taking office last September, Suga outlined his policy agenda and stressed his determination to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We will press ahead with preparations, with determination of building watertight anti-infection measures and holding an event that can bring hope and courage to the world," Suga said of the Olympics.
Rumors ran wild recently that the Tokyo Olympic Games would be postponed to 2032, immediately causing a stir among athletes who had planned to compete at the showpiece event in less than 200 days.
Both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Tokyo 2020 organizing committee had moved swiftly to deny such accusations, dismissing all the reports concerning the cancellation of the Games as "fake news". They reaffirmed their commitment to hosting the already-delayed Tokyo 2020 Games this summer.
As for the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, Suga vowed to tackle surging infection cases and restore normal life "as soon as possible."
"To protect the lives and health of the Japanese people... I will get the situation back to normal as soon as possible," he said.
Suga declared a state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic in Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures in a bid to stem a resurgence of infections earlier this month, and expanded it to cover seven more prefectures including Osaka and Aichi last week.
"What is important is to provide necessary medical services to people in need. We will exhaust all measures to safeguard the medical system," said the Japanese leader.
"We are all ready to deploy the Self-Defense Forces' medical team if requested by governors," he added.
According to latest data from authorities, as of Sunday, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients with serious symptoms topped 970 to mark a record high in the country while the number of patients recuperating at home exceeded the 30,000 mark this week.
Suga, calling South Korea "an important neighbor" when talking about diplomacy polices, said bilateral relations were in a very severe situation.
Earlier this month, a South Korean court ordered Japan's government to pay damages to the South Korean victims who were forced into sex slavery for the Imperial Japan's military brothels during World War II.
Japan maintained that the case should be dropped given the sovereign immunity that allows a state to be immune from civil suit in foreign courts, but the South Korean court said it cannot be applied to the case as the illegal acts were crimes against humanity committed deliberately, systematically and widely by the Imperial Japan.
"To bring relations back to an even keel, we strongly demand the South Korean side take appropriate steps," said the Japanese leader.
Suga also touched on Japan's relationship with the United States, expressing hope that he will be able to meet with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden as soon as possible.
The prime minister also pledged to promote green technology and digitalization. He promised that Japan would aim to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, compared to the previous administration's plans of reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
Suga reiterated his flagship policies of digital transformation, saying that a new government agency will be launched in September to serve as a "command tower" for the efforts.
Earlier in the day before the regular session began, Suga told reporters that he had done his utmost to address challenges facing the country including the COVID-19 outbreak, greenhouse gases and digitalization policies in the four months since he assumed office.
The prime minister said that he would submit bills to the Diet to implement policies on these issues, and he intended to explain them thoroughly to gain public support.
As Suga delivered the policy speech, a poll by Japan's Yomiuri newspaper showed on Monday that his approval rating has declined further due to the public's dissatisfaction with his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the poll, support for Suga's Cabinet slid to 39 percent from 45 percent last month, with the disapproval rating rising six points to 49 percent, meaning that about half of people in the country are now disapproving of his government.
The poll also showed 78 percent of the public in favor of expanding the state of emergency over the COVID-19 outbreak beyond the current 11 prefectures, of which 42 percent say it should be expanded nationwide.