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Politics

Abe holds 1st news conference in 7 weeks as speculation swirls

Japan prime minister takes on criticism of low profile he kept as COVID surged

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in Hiroshima for ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing, gives his first news conference since June 18.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday held his first news conference since June, breaking a spell that coincided with an upswing in new coronavirus infections across the nation, a swell of criticism of the government's response to the wave and speculation that Abe may be remaining out of the public's eye due to low approval numbers.

The news conference followed the atomic bomb victims' memorial service and peace prayer ceremony in Hiroshima, a regular event held by successive prime ministers.

Abe spent about seven minutes of his roughly 15-minute address explaining his government's coronavirus strategy.

Abe said he does not plan to declare a state of emergency despite the wave of new infections. He urged residents to take precautions to help keep the elderly -- who are more at risk of developing serious cases of the disease -- out of harm's way.

Early on in the pandemic, Abe used news conferences to explain how the government was responding. He held two each in March and April, three in May and one in June. That last one came June 18, after the Diet, Japan's parliament, adjourned.

"This time," he said, "I'm also spending a lot of time talking about corona. I would like to hold news conferences whenever needed."

Since the Diet session ended, all parties have been discussing Japan's response to the virus once a week.

Abe has not participated.

The opposition camp has been critical of the prime minister's absence, saying it demonstrates a lack of accountability. In July, the four parties, including the Constitutional Democratic Party, requested that the House of Representatives ask the cabinet to promptly convene an extraordinary Diet session.

Natsuo Yamaguchi, a representative of the Komeito Party, part of the ruling coalition, agreed that "the prime minister should directly explain [the government's handling of the pandemic] to the people," at least in some circumstances.

There is also speculation that Abe's staying out of the public's eye is a reaction to his cabinet's low approval rating.

"Whatever you do," a government source said, "you get criticized." From this perspective, people close to Abe believe, news conferences can be counterproductive.

For another reason, Abe does not plan to visit his hometown in Yamaguchi Prefecture during the upcoming Bon holidays, when Japanese honor their ancestors.

"Go To Travel," a government-initiated tourism campaign that got underway amid the virus's resurgence, excludes Tokyo and its residents from taking advantage of the program's discounts, a belated measure taken to isolate the capital, where infections have been especially high.

Tokyo on Thursday reported 360 new cases and has now confirmed more than 200 new infections for 10 days in a row.

Abe is concerned that visiting Yamaguchi would prompt a backlash.

It will be the first time for Abe to forgo a Bon visit to Yamaguchi since he became prime minister for the second time at the end of 2012.

Some lawmakers who met with Abe on Thursday remarked on his appearance. They said the prime minister looked tired again.

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