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As Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pushes for a quicker vaccine rollout for a nation playing catch-up with much of the developed world, his top-down management style is facing growing scrutiny after weeks of snap decisions that bypassed even members of his own Cabinet.

Within the span of about a month, Suga declared ambitious goals on vaccines in rapid succession, opening up mass vaccination sites run by the Self-Defense Forces, completing all vaccinations for those age 65 or older by the end of July and targeting 1 million doses per day. Exasperated by an astonishingly slow rollout, the prime minister turned to a commanding style that he honed during his nearly eight years as chief Cabinet secretary to map out a more ambitious path forward.

“I believe vaccines are the trump card to protect each and every life,” Suga said on May 14.

But that top-down approach emphasizing speedy delivery of results could backfire and is undermining the government's traditional chain of command.

In fact, the administration's armor may already be showing cracks: When Suga decided to have three prefectures — Hiroshima, Okayama and Hokkaido — fall under quasi-emergency virus measures instead of a full state of emergency in mid-May, he was forced to backtrack due to strong objections from experts on a government panel.

More than eight months after taking office, the Suga administration continues to grapple with how to iron out differences in opinion among officials and present a united front to the public. As the chief Cabinet secretary, Suga was praised for his exceptional ability to coordinate with various government agencies and bureaucrats. The absence of a Suga-like figure in his own Cabinet has been lamented by some, including Suga’s old boss Shinzo Abe, who remarked that “there’s no ‘Suga’ within the Suga administration.”

“Someone who is in charge of coordination within the administration becomes a bulwark for the highest-ranking power-holder, so it’s OK to have discussions or hesitation about policy decisions at the coordination stage,” said Takashi Ryuzaki, a former political reporter and a political science professor at Ryutsu Keizai University.

“However, if a prime minister himself tries to coordinate and his decisions are incoherent, questions will be raised about his decisiveness, as is the case now. … I get the impression that Suga can’t be satisfied unless he has to make decisions on everything.”

Suga exhibited his appetite for taking control with recent moves to respond to the health crisis by directly giving orders to Cabinet ministers.

Earlier this year, he tapped Taro Kono as the minister in charge of the vaccine rollout and Minoru Kihara, a special adviser to the prime minister, to oversee border control measures. The changes took place even though two ministers — health minister Norihisa Tamura and economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura — were already tasked with handling the government’s coronavirus response.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks to reporters with Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi (left) at a large-scale vaccination center in Tokyo on Monday. | POOL / VIA KYODO
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks to reporters with Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi (left) at a large-scale vaccination center in Tokyo on Monday. | POOL / VIA KYODO

He later looped in more Cabinet ministers. On April 27, Suga ordered Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi to speed up plans to open mass vaccination sites operated by the Self-Defense Forces in Osaka and Tokyo as both metropolises were in the throes of a fourth wave of infections. Those instructions bypassed Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, Nishimura, Tamura and Kono.

Until then, municipalities alone had been tasked with administering vaccinations in accordance with the health ministry’s roadmap. Frustrated by sluggish progress that was hampered by bureaucratic red tape, the Prime Minister’s Office proceeded with the plan to mobilize SDF doctors and nurses to vaccinate up to 10,000 people per day in Tokyo and 5,000 per day in Osaka.

Other decisions followed a similar path.

During a news conference on April 23, the prime minister outlined his plan to have all 36 million people age 65 or older receive vaccines by the end of July. On May 7, he similarly introduced a goal of 1 million doses per day in order to reach the July target. In the same vein as the plan for mass vaccination sites, Suga gave a direct order to minister Ryota Takeda to have his Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry support municipalities to ensure a smooth vaccination program.

The prime minister’s top-down decision-making process has been a key characteristic of the administration. With an eye toward speed, Suga deployed similar tactics on carbon neutrality, cell phone bills and digitalization.

Instead of giving instructions to his chief Cabinet secretary, who typically acts as a prime minister's messenger, Suga has shown a willingness to circumvent Kato and deal directly with ministers. He frequently summons them to the Prime Minister’s Office to receive updates and rebuke them if necessary to expedite whatever project they are working on.

Ryuzaki of Ryutsu Keizai University noted that, while Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga acted as a mediator between Abe and other ministers as well as bureaucrats, he was often asked to make decisions on behalf of the prime minister. Suga seemingly hasn't outgrown that position, as he is “doing the same thing he did as the chief Cabinet secretary,” Ryuzaki said.

“The prime minister needs to handle various issues, so there’s a limit to what one person can do,” he said. “The prime minister makes the ultimate decision based on the premise that there’s someone in charge of broad coordination like Mr. Suga used to be. In other words, no prime minister can make all decisions solely” on their own.

When Abe was prime minister, he counseled with a close circle of elite bureaucrats. He controlled bureaucracy through Suga and Kazuhiro Sugita, the deputy chief Cabinet secretary, to materialize his policy decisions.

Together, they employed a top-down leadership style that augmented the decision-making authority of the Prime Minister’s Office, instead of letting bureaucrats take charge of their own departments. Among bureaucrats, Suga has gained a reputation for being unwilling to listen to opposing views and not hesitating to relegate them if they stubbornly disagree with his policies.

Sugita, who still serves as deputy chief Cabinet secretary, reportedly orchestrated the mass vaccination plan using the Self-Defense Forces. In his role, Sugita is supposed to assist the chief Cabinet secretary and manage bureaucrats as their administrative chief. However, despite his successful push for the mass vaccination sites, he appears to be less involved in decision-making on coronavirus policies compared to his time under Abe. Instead, Suga often consults directly with adviser Hiroto Izumi and three top health ministry officials.

As for coordination inside the administration, someone like Sugita could help with crisis management on a temporary basis, but it would be difficult for someone in his position to do so continuously, said Izuru Makihara, a professor of Japanese politics at the University of Tokyo.

“I believe there needs to be someone who could govern all ministers involved in coronavirus response over the long term,” Makihara said.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga attends a Cabinet meeting with Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato (left) on May 14. | KYODO
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga attends a Cabinet meeting with Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato (left) on May 14. | KYODO

Signs are emerging that the absence of a reliable coordinator and Suga’s style of management may not be tenable.

On May 14, the government solicited approval from experts on a government panel to invoke quasi-emergency countermeasures to several prefectures, including Okayama and Hiroshima, and not to apply a state of emergency to Hokkaido. With Suga apparently worried about the economic impact of a full state of emergency, he pushed for a targeted approach in order to stem a rising wave of infections in those areas.

The experts, who until then had reliably approved government decisions, revolted against Suga's assessment: Both infectious disease specialists and economic experts questioned the administration's plan to keep those regions out of the state of emergency — particularly Hokkaido, where a record 712 new cases had been reported the previous day.

Nishimura capitulated, left in the middle of the panel meeting and rushed to the Prime Minister’s Office. Nishimura then consulted with Suga, health minister Tamura and Kato after a Cabinet meeting.

In an unprecedented move, Suga went back on his decision and decided to impose the emergency. The government relented to the demand because almost everyone on the panel deemed that the most stringent option was necessary, according to one senior administration official who is familiar with the development.

The opposition camp jumped at the opportunity to criticize Suga's flip-flop.

Jun Azumi, the Constitutional Democratic Party's Diet affairs chief, rebuked Suga as frivolous, claiming the incident had broken public trust in the administration's ability to manage itself.

The U-turn unmasked the administration’s inadequate coordination, Ryuzaki said.

Typically, Nishimura "would have called Kato to solicit Suga’s decision, which is the chief Cabinet secretary’s role,” Ryuzaki said. “But Nishimura hastened to the Prime Minister’s Office because he knew talking to Kato would be meaningless and needed to ask for Suga’s decision directly to contain the situation.”

“Nishimura rightfully should’ve known what the experts would suggest (the day before the panel meeting) and advised the prime minister, if not the chief Cabinet secretary,” he said. “But he knows the prime minister would tell him, ‘it’s your job to convince the experts.’ … Since Suga embraces such a style, the current environment wouldn't have allowed Nishimura to offer his opinion to the prime minister beforehand.”

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