TOKYO -- Corporate Japan is taking the vaccination baton from the government, with some companies ready to start providing shots to their employees this month, eager to secure their workplaces and get the economy moving.
Such private sector involvement is a first for Japan, but the government's inoculation efforts have been lagging. Less than 3% of the country's population is fully vaccinated, far less than in any other developed economy.
"By inoculating our employees, we aim to contribute to a faster recovery of the Japanese economy and help everyone get back their everyday life," Itochu said in a statement. The big trading house is one of a number of companies that will start administering injections on June 21.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato on Tuesday told reporters the government will offer the Moderna jabs to companies and universities in an effort to speed up the vaccination process.
Japan's current efforts rely on mass vaccination centers run by municipalities and the Self-Defense Forces.
The country has been inoculating residents aged 65 and over since April. Medical and health care professionals have also been eligible for shots. The new initiative for the first time brings eligibility to the working-age population at large.
There is a lot riding on the program.
Masamichi Adachi, chief economist for Japan at UBS Securities, said corporate involvement in the vaccination program will provide "long-awaited relief" and give the country an opportunity to accelerate its inoculation efforts.
"It's absolutely positive for the economy," he said. "Once the rollout shifts gears, society will get back to normal very fast. As consumers have accumulated their savings during the pandemic, businesses will have to quickly come up with ideas of how" to juice spending on products and services.
By having large companies inoculate their employees, the government wants to raise the number of daily shots to 1 million as soon as possible. Currently, the number stands at half a million.
Japan's vaccination levels are far behind those of other developed countries. The U.S. has inoculated 41% of its population. The U.K. is at 38%, and Germany 19%, according to Our World in Data.
Many retailers, manufacturers and other companies are expected to take part in the program, though the timing and other details remain to be worked out.
Itochu has said it will inoculate its own employees as well as contract workers in its buildings -- receptionists, security guards, cleaning staff and day care teachers. It expects 7,500 workers will be eligible.
Most of those who want to be inoculated will be fully vaccinated by the end of August, Itochu said.
Mitsui & Co., another trading house, will start vaccinating its employees as early as late June. The first recipients will be 3,500 employees at its offices in Tokyo.
A Bridgestone representative told Nikkei Asia that it is positively considering whether to vaccinate its employees. "By expanding inoculation, we can keep our employees safe and secure. We want to proactively offer the vaccine," the representative said, adding that details are being worked out.
A representative for Toyota Motor said the automaker is considering whether to inoculate its employees.
Tokyo-based petroleum company Eneos Holdings and Aeon, Japan's biggest retail group, are also weighing the possibility, representatives told Nikkei Asia.
Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing is "currently looking into this possibility," a representative said, although nothing has been decided yet.
Japan on Thursday reported 2,831 new infections, down from a high of 7,049 in early May. The government has extended the current state of emergency twice in Tokyo, Osaka and seven other prefectures. It is now set to expire on June 20.
Although speed is a priority for both the government and companies, medical experts say vaccinating employees at their workplaces requires careful consideration.
Kazunari Onishi, a professor of public health at St. Luke's International University in Tokyo, said managers should carefully handle private information on who is vaccinated and who is not, adding that the wishes of those who do not want to be vaccinated must be respected. In addition, he said, the situations of those who cannot be vaccinated must be respected.
Some companies have introduced a system to prepare for side effects. Itochu will give its employees suffering from side effects special leave. Panasonic will allow its employees to take up to two days of special leave to receive and recover from an injection.