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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s declaration of another state of emergency for Tokyo and its surrounding area appears to have come too late, with the government’s decision-making process slowed by his prioritization of economic recovery and the manner in which he took office four months ago.

The monthlong state of emergency through Feb. 7, covering Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba prefectures, is less comprehensive than the previous one in April last year. The declaration was widely viewed as insufficient to suppress COVID-19 infections, leaving room for a potential extension and an expansion of its scope that will likely have more serious repercussions on the economy.

While Suga has pledged to improve the situation in one month, political observers say he would not receive credit for such a feat as he has shown little leadership in curbing the surge of infections since November. Whether he can secure a second term as prime minister is becoming increasingly uncertain.

Describing Suga’s response to the resurgence as not fast enough, Yu Uchiyama, a University of Tokyo professor of political science, said, “He may have paid too much attention to the economy.”

“The economy is important, but if the virus spreads, it will damage the economy,” Uchiyama said, adding the government should have carefully listened to medical experts who have repeatedly said it is important to prioritize containing the pandemic.

Suga, who succeeded Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September, had been reluctant to tighten anti-virus measures. Instead, he pushed his Go To Travel subsidy program, denying the need to stop the campaign until the last minute, even as health experts warned of its role in the third wave of infections.

Suga was forced to change course on an emergency declaration in the face of pressure from Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and her counterparts in Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures, who urged the government to immediately declare a state of emergency to allow them to request that restaurants in their areas shorten business hours.

Other analysts, including Waseda University political science professor Etsushi Tanifuji, believe Suga’s slow action stems from his elevation to prime minister through factional politics.

After Abe abruptly stepped down due to health reasons, Suga took over to serve out the remainder of Abe’s term by winning the Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership race, with key factions throwing their support behind him.

A street in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on Friday. The monthlong state of emergency covering Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba prefectures is less comprehensive than the previous one in April last year. | BLOOMBERG
A street in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward on Friday. The monthlong state of emergency covering Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba prefectures is less comprehensive than the previous one in April last year. | BLOOMBERG

Tanifuji said Suga, who does not belong to a ruling party faction, is required to take into account the interests of the different groups that back him.

“Mr. Suga needs to constantly make arrangements and achieve a balance between factions, so his decision-making is always slow,” Tanifuji said.

Suga’s decision to halt Go To Travel, a program that was backed by the faction led by LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, from Dec. 28 was also criticized as being too late.

Japan has recently seen a sharp increase in coronavirus infections, with more than 7,500 new cases being reported in recent days, in contrast with case counts below 1,000 as recently as Nov. 16.

One medical projection states that it would take around two months to reduce the daily figure to 100 in Tokyo even if stricter measures are applied.

Masahiro Iwasaki, a political science professor at Nihon University, said Suga, facing falling approval ratings, has been unwilling to act as he fears the public will disapprove of disruptions to their daily lives.

“In the worst-case scenario, the state of emergency continues until around April, his support rate falls, and the economy slumps,” Iwasaki said.

Other prefectures are also seeking to be covered by the state of emergency.

Media polls in December showed approval ratings for Suga’s Cabinet at around 40% — a sharp contrast with over 60% at the launch of his Cabinet — and Iwasaki said the ratings are likely to have dropped further.

“We are probably already in the closing days of his government,” the Waseda professor said.

Suga’s term as LDP president runs out in September and the terms for House of Representatives lawmakers expire in October, meaning he must carefully time when to call a general election if he wants to serve a second term, while the country is preparing to hold the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer.

“It is possible that he could call an election in spring after the state of emergency is lifted,” Iwasaki said.

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