Japan's Kishida says virus measures, defense top priorities

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TOKYO (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told parliament on Monday that fighting the pandemic and strengthening defense are his government's top priorities.

Kishida delivered a speech opening this year's parliamentary session hours after North Korea test-fired two possible ballistic missiles — its fourth tests this month.

“I will devote my body and soul to win this fight against the coronavirus,” Kishida said, calling it a “national crisis.” He urged people to help each other overcome the pandemic.

The Japanese capital reported 3,719 new cases on Monday. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and the heads of three neighboring prefectures where infections are also surging agreed Monday to jointly ask Kishida's government to place the region under “pre-emergency” status and move toward restrictions such as working from home and shorter hours for eateries.

The government's decision is expected within days.

“In Tokyo, all residents now face the risk of becoming patients or the close contacts of patients, a situation that could paralyze the social infrastructure,” Koike said. “I hope to work together to protect the lives and health of residents of our prefectures while maintaining social and economic activity.”

Kishida reiterated his plan to keep Japan's stringent border controls in place, banning most foreign entrants until the end of February, while the country tries to speed up COVID-19 vaccine booster shots and reinforce its medical system to support an increasing number of patients being monitored or treated at home.

The highly transmissible omicron variant has driven infections higher and started to paralyze medical and public services in some areas as more people are forced to self-isolate. Japan last week trimmed its 14-day quarantine period to 10 days.

Kishida urged companies to promote remote work, and called on schools to make flexible use of online classes. Booster shots began last month with medical workers and so far less than 1% of the population has had their third dose.

Japan recently cut the waiting period between second and third shots for elderly people to six months from eight. In part because of a shortage of imported vaccines, most younger Japanese are not expected to get their turn until March.

In his speech, Kishida also addressed what he said was an “increasingly severe and complex" regional situation. “I'm determined to protect the people's lives and daily life," he vowed.

North Korea's repeated test-firings of ballistic missiles “are absolutely not permissible and we should not overlook its significant progress in missile technology," Kishida said.

North Korea on Monday fired two possible ballistic missiles which Japanese officials said landed off its eastern coast.

North Korea's nuclear and missile development, along with China's rapid military buildup, have already prompted Kishida's government to raise Japan's military budget.

Kishida repeated his plan to consider development of a controversial pre-emptive strike capability that would “drastically strengthen" Japan's defense power, especially for islands in southwestern Japan. Tokyo is particularly concerned about China's increasingly assertive maritime activity in the region and rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

He is to hold an online summit with U.S. President Joe Biden on Jan. 21 as the two leaders seek to strengthen ties, Tokyo and Washington announced Monday.

Kishida called the U.S. alliance “the lynchpin of Japan's diplomatic and security policies."

Kishida, who is from Hiroshima, which the U.S. attacked with an atomic bomb in World War II, said he seeks "a world without nuclear weapons" and plans to hold a conference with former and serving world leaders on phasing out nuclear weapons. He said he hopes the first meeting will be in his hometown this year.

Kishida pledged to promote energy reforms to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. He said he supports the use of “innovative” nuclear energy such as nuclear fusion technology as well as renewables to meet the goal.

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