A funny thing happened between the day Shinzo Abe said he was stepping down as Japan’s prime minister and the day Yoshihide Suga was elected the new president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Abe’s presumptive successor. Prior to Abe’s Aug. 28 announcement, his Cabinet’s support rate was the lowest it had been since July 2017. Afterward, however, it skyrocketed.
In a discussion published in the Sept. 21 issue of Aera, journalist Akira Ikegami called this phenomenon the “Toshimaen” effect, essentially linking it to an amusement park in Tokyo bearing the same name. When the park revealed in February that it was closing without specifying a date, people started flocking to it in numbers it hadn’t seen in decades. As Ikegami put it, the public knew Toshimaen was about to vanish and missed it even before it closed.
Ikegami’s analogy suggests that most citizens aren’t interested in the government per se. A lot of people still get their news from television, which simplifies matters and skews coverage so as not to tax the intellect. When the media suddenly boosted Suga as the likely next prime minister, everyone accepted it, despite the fact that, before Abe’s resignation, few press outlets considered him leadership material.
A Sept. 16 article on the Harbor Business Online website concluded that the mainstream media, and not just TV, bought into the LDP strategy to make Suga prime minister by playing up character. Suga, whose previous image as the party’s chief Cabinet secretary was that of a dour, reticent grouch, was now presented as a fitness freak who didn’t drink and liked pancakes. He was even capable of smiling. Moreover, he wasn’t heir to a political dynasty that looked upon its constituency as a family business. He was a farm boy who moved to the big city and rose to the top through hard work. Suga memes were suddenly all the buzz on the video app TikTok.
In contrast, Shigeru Ishiba, an articulate eccentric and one of two LDP members who challenged Suga for the presidency, was effectively shut down by both his party and the media, presumably because he was critical of the Abe administration. As recently as June, when asked by the Asahi Shimbun who they wanted for their next prime minister, 31 percent of respondents, the largest portion, chose Ishiba, while only 3 percent mentioned Suga, probably because he hadn’t expressed any interest in the job. After Abe hand-picked him as his successor, however, Suga became the favorite.
Suga held on to these approval ratings after he became prime minister and formed a Cabinet. According to various media surveys, the public’s support ranged between 64 and 74 percent, which is extraordinary for an administration that hadn’t done anything yet. It seems unlikely the public formed its favorable impression of Suga from the election campaign, which, as described by Yahoo News, was “unexciting” because it was premised on the assumption Suga would win. Once the LDP made its decision, every survey had Suga on top. The Asahi Shimbun pegged Suga’s support at 31 percent on Sept. 2 and 3, with Ishiba at 25 percent. Suga’s win had become a foregone conclusion, because people don’t want to be caught backing a loser.
The media’s role in this process was instrumental. Major news outlets mostly went with Suga’s back story and the human interest angle, avoiding discussions of policy pronouncements or lack thereof. In some areas, they might have dug deeper. As political journalist Tetsuo Suzuki told Yahoo News, Suga’s policy experience has been with narrow stopgap proposals, such as the hometown tax system and the Go To Travel campaign. But the main issue is that Suga is tight-lipped. An anonymous LDP source told Yahoo News that, as shown by his long stint as the Cabinet spokesperson, he does not like answering questions and never developed a flair for it, which could become a problem when he has to debate in the Diet. (Abe, it should be noted, reportedly doesn’t like answering questions either.)
Suga’s prickly personality seems to worry journalists more than it does the public, which only knew him from the occasional carefully edited comments he made at regular news conferences that appeared on the nightly news. TV tends to treat Suga gingerly, a result of the Abe administration’s successful campaign to get the media in line. This campaign, in fact, was engineered by Suga, according to Shigeaki Koga, a trade ministry bureaucrat turned government critic who used to be a frequent TV pundit. According to an interview he gave on the Democracy Times web program, since 2012, when the second Abe administration started, Suga has made a point of dining with journalists every day to curry their favor.
And he is just as likely to use a stick when dealing with the press as he is a carrot. A Sept. 18 article in Gendai Business says Suga’s stated goal of reducing mobile phone charges has a dual motive. One is obviously to gain public approval. The other is to scare the media. The government leases the airwaves, and, as it stands, TV networks pay much less for the use of electromagnetic signals (except for NHK, between ¥630 million and ¥660 million a year) than do mobile phone service providers (¥11.47 billion to ¥18.41 billion).
TV companies see Suga’s plan to reduce cell phone fees by 40 percent as a veiled threat to their own interests, since any lost revenue will likely be made up elsewhere. Low usage fees for broadcasters were once justified by TV’s role as a public service, a role that is increasingly being filled by mobile devices. TV stations are aware of this and thus are reportedly careful not to cover Suga and the LDP in a negative light.
In a recent Shukan Asahi column, Koga said that the LDP had sent a letter to all the dailies and wire services prior to the party presidential election, demanding that they cover the campaign fairly. He is not aware that the LDP sent such a letter to TV stations, probably because they didn’t have to be reminded of their role in covering the campaign. TV already knows how to toe the line.