There is a persistent belief that delays in Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s measures to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus are partly due to sontaku, or consideration, by him for ruling party heavyweight Toshihiro Nikai.
Although the government’s apparent reluctance to implement strong measures for stopping the movement of people to curb infections has been chiefly because of its concerns about the adverse effects on the economy, the proximity of Nikai, secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party and a major backer of the Suga administration, to decision-making is making the stance look like it is not purely based on such fears.
Members of the LDP research commission on tourism, including Nikai and his right-hand man, LDP Acting Secretary-General Motoo Hayashi, met with some 30 tourism industry representatives Thursday, the day the government decided to declare a fresh state of emergency for the Tokyo metropolitan area.
They agreed that the government’s Go To Travel campaign, which has been halted nationwide due to concerns about tourists spreading the virus, should be resumed soon after the state of emergency is lifted. “Tourism is a key driver of the Japanese economy and a weapon to revitalize regional economies,” Hayashi told reporters after the meeting.
The campaign, in which the government supports hotels and other travel-related businesses struggling amid the pandemic and cuts travel costs for tourists, has been a core policy for Suga since it began in July last year, when he was chief Cabinet secretary under the administration of then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
But Nikai’s strong support for the campaign is also seen to have been a major factor in realizing the policy, as he is close to Suga and serves as head of the All Nippon Travel Agents Association.
Nikai’s influence over the Go To Travel campaign was seen clearly on Dec. 14, when a senior official in the LDP faction led by him lashed out at the government’s decision the same day to temporarily halt the scheme across the nation during the year-end and New Year’s holiday period, although Suga notified Nikai of the decision by telephone beforehand on the day.
The official called the suspension a “selfish move,” apparently illustrating Nikai’s frustration over the suspension.
The same day, Suga was called to a year-end party attended by Nikai, Hayashi and five celebrities at a high-end steak restaurant in Tokyo’s posh Ginza district. Once this was reported by media organizations, the prime minister came under fire over the dinner, which flew in the face of the government’s request for people to avoid dining in large groups to curb the spread of the virus.
Suga told people around him that he had initially intended to only make a greeting and leave, but was asked to stay, which some see as proof of Nikai’s sway over the prime minister.
Nikai initially opposed the government declaration of the new state of emergency, sources have said.
Nikai reversed course to tolerate the fresh emergency plan on Jan. 2 after determining, based on the details of a request for a state of emergency by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and others, that its impact on the tourism industry would be limited, according to the sources.
Some in the ruling bloc speculate that Suga might have been hesitating to declare the state of emergency out of consideration for Nikai, although the prime minister informed the Nikai side on Jan. 3 of his intention to study issuing the emergency declaration. Suga announced a plan to consider the declaration at a news conference the following day.
The Nikai side is expected to shortly request that the government resume the Go To Travel campaign after the fresh state of emergency is lifted, but questions remain over whether Suga can easily restart a policy that critics have blamed for the spread of the coronavirus.
A minister in the Suga Cabinet said that the prime minister faces the difficult job of deciding whether to resume the program while examining the state of infections and public sentiment on one hand and assessing Nikai’s views on the other hand.
“It’s because of Nikai that we couldn’t suspend the Go To program (early),” the minister added.
The government put the travel discount campaign on hold nationwide on Dec. 28, after suspending its application for trips to Tokyo and some other cities earlier.
The nationwide suspension, which was initially slated to last until Monday this week, has been extended until Feb. 7, the final day of the state of emergency, which covers Tokyo and the neighboring prefectures of Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa. The fresh state of emergency started Friday.
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