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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Monday asked the public to trust his ability to steer the country through the increased spread of the coronavirus and modernize the nation with his recipe for “the next engine of growth” — carbon neutrality and digitalization — amid slipping support.

In his second policy speech to the Diet, Suga charted an expansive course of action aimed at curbing the deadly coronavirus, tackling long-standing domestic issues with an overarching theme of safety and hope, and asserting Japan’s diplomatic presence by shaping a post-pandemic international order.

“Above everything, I’ll do everything I can to stamp out the coronavirus as soon as possible and win back everyday life, so that everyone can make their living safely and the streets are busy again,” Suga said. “To carve out hope for the future, I’ve worked out the solutions for longtime issues over the past four months. I’ll implement them as soon as possible, and I present our country’s future vision to you all.”

The speech comes as public sentiment toward the prime minister is at an all-time low since he took office last September. Even the latest poll by the right-leaning Yomiuri Shimbun daily showed his approval rating had dropped by 6 percentage points from last month to 39%, while the disapproval rate climbed up to 49%.

Although the government’s coronavirus response was front and center in his speech, which marks the beginning of a 150-day regular Diet session, there were hardly any new proposals on how to blunt transmission of the virus.

Instead, Suga largely restated what he had said in previous news conferences: an apology to the public for imposing the state of emergency, a laundry list of the current measures under the declaration, such as requests to shorten business hours, and a promise to revise the special measure law on the coronavirus, which stipulates compensation and penalties. The prime minister, as he has before, forecast that vaccine rollout would begin by the end of February.

To incentivize medical facilities to accept and treat COVID-19 patients, he pledged that the government will raise the subsidy for hospitals treating them by up to ¥19.5 million per bed. To assist public health centers, he said support staff available for dispatch would be increased from 1,200 to 3,000.

Besides extending employment subsidies to part-time workers as well as large corporations and raising borrowing limits for struggling businesses to ¥60 million without collateral and interest, the government will increase the number of child welfare commissioners to detect child abuse at an early stage and augment support for suicide hotlines by promoting them on social media, touching on two issues on the rise during the pandemic.

“I’m determined to be at the forefront of this battle and overcome this crisis by working with prefectural governors and municipal officials as I seek cooperation from the people once again,” he said.

Opposition lawmakers heckled Suga as he was reading his speech, shouting “It’s not enough” when he mentioned the employment subsidy, “Is that it?” when he described the promotion of the suicide hotlines and “Is this it?” as he wrapped up the section on the coronavirus response. Irritated, a lawmaker in the ruling party seats hit back, “Shut up and listen!”

Empty seats are seen as lawmakers practice social distancing, during Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's policy speech at the opening of the Lower House parliamentary session in Tokyo on Monday. | REUTERS
Empty seats are seen as lawmakers practice social distancing, during Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s policy speech at the opening of the Lower House parliamentary session in Tokyo on Monday. | REUTERS

Suga dedicated the largest section of the speech to domestic policies, especially on his favored areas of carbon emissions reduction and digital reform. Declaring that environmental measures are opportunities to transform the industrial structure and stimulate economic growth, he vowed to expand renewable energy, support technological development through the establishment of a ¥2 trillion fund and create a framework for the financial market to attract environmental investment from overseas.

He also took the time to highlight the role of a specialized governmental agency on digitalization, such as in the standardization of online municipal systems in five years and the popularization of the My Number social security and taxation identification card, which will be paired up with driver’s licenses in four years.

“My Cabinet works out the solutions even on challenging issues,” he said. “I’ll continue to manage growth-oriented policies.”

As for his foreign policy blueprint, Suga laid out a vision for what he called “a unified world.” He reiterated the country’s determination to lead carbon reduction efforts worldwide and release a 2030 target by the United Nations Climate Change Conference in November. To advance the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy, he said he hopes to deepen cooperation with the United States, Southeast Asian countries, Australia, India and Europe.

“Our nation emphasizes multilateralism,” he said.

A carrot-and-stick approach was evident in his speech. On the U.S., he extolled the significance of Japan’s ties with its ally and expressed his eagerness to meet with President-elect Joe Biden “as soon as possible” to work on climate change and the coronavirus response. Regarding the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, he billed its members as “strategic partners” and “precious friends” in facilitating the FOIP.

On the other hand, Suga demoted South Korea’s classification from “a critically important neighboring country” in his last policy speech to “an important neighboring country,” and added the phrase “bilateral relations are in an extremely severe situation.” The change was a reflection of strained ties over historical issues.

He similarly omitted the word “critically” in describing the importance of Japan-China relations in the region and the world. He inserted two phrases acknowledging the existence of problems between them and urged Beijing to take specific actions to resolve them.

With China in mind, Suga also said the government will enact economic security laws to protect the homeland, including outlying islands and defense facilities, against inappropriate use and possession of the land.

As an alternative to Hong Kong, which has been subjected to a heavy crackdown by Beijing, he again pitched Japan as an international financial hub in Asia, putting forward policies such as exempting foreigners’ assets outside the country from inheritance tax, standardizing income tax at 20% and easing legal status restrictions.

Despite their growing unpopularity, he once again said that preparations to host this year’s Olympics and Paralympics Games will go on.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga takes a sip of water as he delivers his policy speech at the opening of the Lower House parliamentary session in Tokyo on Monday. | REUTERS
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga takes a sip of water as he delivers his policy speech at the opening of the Lower House parliamentary session in Tokyo on Monday. | REUTERS

What was conspicuously absent in his speech was a reference to the Go To stimulus programs on traveling and dining out. The administration set aside more than ¥1 trillion for the extension of the program, which has been temporarily suspended following the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases.

Critics have said Suga’s reluctance to halt the program — out of concern for provoking tourism industries that he is close with and Liberal Democratic Party secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai, a power broker backed by tourism special-interest groups — exacerbated the health crisis.

A senior administration official familiar with the speech-writing process admitted a reference to the Go To campaign had been omitted, as it contradicts efforts to contain the virus — essentially a concession that the government’s goal of promoting both virus containment and the economy at the same time has ground to a halt.

In a litany of proposals, Suga yet again continued his push to encourage city residents to move to the countryside with a mix of agricultural reform, tourism promotion and financial incentives. He also renewed his call for reforming social welfare to lessen the burden on young people with regards to social security contributions, and enabling the national insurance system to cover infertility treatment starting in April 2022. For the first time in 40 years, the average class size in elementary schools will be reduced to 35 students, he added.

Toward the end of the speech, Suga once again apologized for making false statements related to dinner parties held by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the eve of an annual state-funded cherry blossom viewing party when he was chief Cabinet secretary.

“Above all, the public’s trust is integral for politicians who hold the reins of the state,” Suga said and bowed his head lightly. Opposition lawmakers yelled, “That’s right,” the hint of sarcasm underlining their belief that the prime minister has not lived up to his remark.

Throughout the speech, Suga mostly spoke in a monotone voice and stuck to his script. But at times, such as when he expressed his resolution to repatriate Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s, he raised his voice. Some lawmakers in the Lower House chamber sneered when he stumbled and stuttered over the word “seven” when saying that 70% of all medicines qualify for a reduction in fees.

In contrast to speeches by Abe, Suga’s predecessor, the prime minister tends to shy away from including personal anecdotes and quotes in policy speeches.

In his speech Monday, though, he broke away from that habit and introduced two pieces of advice from his mentor, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama, that he says are his guiding principles: that it is necessary to gain the public’s acceptance for hard-to-swallow policies and that a politician should fulfill their responsibility to ensure the country’s prosperity.

Although those bits of advice referred to Japan’s economic and demographic challenges, some administration officials view them as an allusion to the present situation: a country at the crossroads.

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