Every weekday morning before wrestling with the issues of the day, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga strolls through the basement of the Prime Minister’s Office as part of his morning routine.
The walk has been part of his day since he was chief Cabinet secretary, but now must be confined to the grounds of the building for security reasons.
Taking a walk around a dusky basement and emerging into the sunny grounds could serve as a metaphor for Suga’s psychological state as he prepared for the 150-day ordinary Diet session — his first as prime minister — to wrap up as scheduled Wednesday.
Looking back, he has crossed some major items off his to-do list: passing legislation to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and establish a digitalization agency, and visiting Washington to become the first foreign leader to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden.
If the pandemic was not continuing to disrupt daily lives, Suga would have enough achievements under his belt to be untroubled by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership contest and the general election, which must be held by September and October, respectively.
But as the coronavirus ran amok, public attention focused on the government’s measures against the pandemic, which have occupied much of his time and energy.
Suga’s Cabinet approval rating dipped to record lows in multiple polls due to repeated state-of-emergency declarations, an initially slow vaccine rollout and an obsession with holding the Olympics despite widespread public opposition. But he has been able to stay in the job largely because of an absence of strong, united opposition forces.
“There was a great deal of disappointment and apprehension among constituents about the delay in vaccinations compared with other countries, as their primary concerns were coronavirus measures and vaccination developments,” said Naoko Taniguchi, a political scientist at Keio University.
Entering a crucial election season, Suga is now betting that an accelerated vaccine rollout — allowing most of the population to be inoculated — will garner him enough public support to win the vote.
COVID-19 dominated the agenda from day one of the Diet session.
The Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, which make up the ruling coalition, successfully passed revisions to several laws related to public health, including those that legalized prison terms for COVID-19 patients who refuse to be hospitalized. A stimulus package, a fiscal 2021 budget and a third supplementary budget all cleared the Diet before April, the beginning of the fiscal year.
After passing the budget for this fiscal year, Suga pivoted to pursuing his pet projects. He made a public pledge to slash greenhouse gases by 46% by 2030, while the Diet approved bills to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and facilitate digitalization by modernizing outdated administrative procedures and creating a special government agency for that specific purpose.
He decided to discharge into the Pacific water from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant that remains contaminated despite treatment, and raised health care fees for people age 75 or older, both of which had been long-standing policy challenges. A bill to amend the law concerning referendums over revisions to the Constitution also passed the Diet.
Suga has attempted to show leadership in diplomacy — an area he is not considered fond of. He traveled to Washington for a bilateral meeting with Biden ahead of other world leaders, and took part in a meeting of leaders from countries in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, showing resolve against China’s expansionism.
He had hoped that making progress in these goals would reinforce his support base and shake off perceptions that he is a caretaker leader intended to serve only until September, when Shinzo Abe’s term as LDP president is over. By foregoing an opportunity to call a snap election last fall, early in his term as prime minister, he chose to appeal to the public’s judgment with his track record of policy achievements.
The prime minister carries a strong sense of responsibility, said Muneo Suzuki, an Upper House lawmaker and member of Nippon Ishin no Kai who meets with Suga on roughly a monthly basis.
“The prime minister doesn’t grumble,” Suzuki said. “One thing I thought was interesting was when he said to me recently, with feeling, ‘I had been on my toes every day when I was the chief Cabinet secretary. For seven years and eight months, there wasn’t a single day that I could have peace of mind. But when I became the prime minister, that feeling became more intense every day.’”
Then the coronavirus threw a wrench into the works, and his administration’s inconsistent, slow response left the public acutely dissatisfied.
On-again, off-again states of emergency have been weakened by a lack of compulsory lockdowns, and businesses that were asked to close early or shut down completely watched their revenues fall.
Fearing a public backlash, leaders in central and local governments have kept pointing fingers at each other over the introduction of stricter measures, and variants with stronger transmissibility have broken through the nation’s borders. Overwhelmed by a spike in new cases, the health care system in Osaka Prefecture essentially collapsed — preventing even seriously ill patients from being admitted to hospitals.
Although Suga did apologize for extending states of emergency, he often ignored questions seeking accountability in his decision-making and political responsibility.
“My decision to lift the state of emergency the last time (on March 21) was made after consulting with experts based on the number of (people) infected and hospital beds available,” Suga said during an April 23 news conference, where he announced the emergency would be imposed for a third time. “What prompted this state of emergency was variants … (that were) much stronger (than previous strains).”
Defying concerns from public health experts and the apprehensive public, the administration is forging ahead with holding the Olympics as planned this summer.
Although reporters and opposition lawmakers have relentlessly pressed the administration to explain its confidence in holding the games, Suga has dodged their questions while repeatedly stating that the government is committed to hosting a “safe and secure” Olympics.
Asked on June 7 about the prerequisites for the global athletic event to take place, Suga merely said, “The conditions are that the lives and health of the citizens are protected while athletes worldwide can participate in it safely. The Olympics won’t be held if these conditions are not met.”
In a surprise move, Shigeru Omi, head of the government’s own panel on the COVID-19 response, told lawmakers that it would be “unusual” to host the games amid a pandemic and that he would be filing an independent assessment on the infection risk during the planned games. Suga and public health experts have clashed in the past about the stringency of virus countermeasures, but Omi’s reference to the Olympics has reportedly struck a nerve for many administration officials.
With many among the public dismayed by Suga’s lackluster pandemic response, his poll numbers have suffered a telling blow. The approval rating recorded by the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun this month was 37% — Suga’s lowest since he became prime minister. A Japan News Network poll logged a similar record low this month with 39%.
Aside from COVID-19, financial scandals have also pitted the prime minister against ferocious attacks from the opposition.
Revelations over conflicts of interest at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry and alleged bribery at the agriculture ministry have led to dozens of public servants being disciplined.
In the case of the communications ministry, the Cabinet public affairs secretary, who was previously an official responsible for policy coordination with firms involved in telecommunications, was forced to step down after it was revealed she had been treated to an expensive meal by a satellite broadcasting firm that also employed Suga’s eldest son.
To avoid lengthy political scuffles with the opposition and conserve their strength for the final stretch, the ruling coalition adopted a defensive stance, abandoning proposed amendments to laws on immigration and broadcasting in the current session. Opposition forces were particularly aggrieved by immigration authorities’ treatment of detainees, highlighted by the death of a Sri Lankan national who had been kept at an immigration center in Nagoya.
Meanwhile, opposition party candidates swept all three April by-elections in Hiroshima, Nagano and Hokkaido.
Despite these concerns, expectations that they will be leveraged by the opposition remain muted nationwide.
The Yomiuri poll this month showed that while the approval rating for the LDP was a modest 33%, that of the largest opposition group — the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) — was languishing at just 5%, trailed by the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) at 3% and with the Democratic Party for the People (DPP) logging zero support.
“The reason why opposition parties are unable to boost their approval ratings is that people doubt their ability to assume the reins of government,” said Jun Iio, a professor of Japanese politics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
“The prime minister is not persuasive, and perhaps he doesn’t even attempt to be convincing,” Iio explained. “The opposition, meanwhile, should have demonstrated that it is more capable of being in charge than the prime minister … but it’s not doing anything more than dragging down the ruling coalition.”
Mindful of criticism that the opposition does nothing but criticize, CDP leader Yukio Edano put effort into counterproposals regarding the COVID-19 response and the national referendum law amendment during this session. Still, many opposition lawmakers could not shake off their habit of attacking the ruling parties whenever scandals came to light, which did not translate into wider public support.
For example, the opposition recently intensified its criticism of the administration over its slow vaccine rollout. Last year, though, it cautioned against quick approvals of new COVID-19 vaccines and managed to add to the revised immunization law a supplementary resolution calling for “cautious reviews” during the approval process.
The opposition even dared to challenge the administration with a no-confidence motion against Suga’s Cabinet on Tuesday, risking a snap election. The motion was voted down.
For the upcoming election, opposition parties are coordinating to field unified opposition candidates in single-seat districts so as not to split votes, thereby increasing their odds of winning.
But the opposition is composed of parties with diverse ideological principles and major policy differences in areas such as nuclear energy, with the DPP and JCP averse to working together.
All bets on vaccines
To bounce back from his record-low approval ratings, the prime minister has essentially made an all-or-nothing bet on vaccines delivering a win for his administration.
Japan started its vaccine rollout in February, at first inoculating medical workers and then expanding the program in April to people age 65 and above.
But frustrated by sluggish progress, in part caused by bureaucratic red tape, Suga turned to doctors and nurses from the Self-Defense Forces to vaccinate up to 10,000 and 5,000 people per day in Tokyo and Osaka, respectively. The Defense Ministry on Tuesday shifted its policy to allow those age 64 or younger to be vaccinated at the sites as well.
In a series of rapid-fire announcements, Suga pledged to finish vaccinations for the nation’s 36 million people age 65 or above by the end of July, as well as administering 1 million doses each day and expanding mass vaccination schemes at workplaces and universities.
Last week, during a one-on-one Diet faceoff, he stole Edano’s thunder by unveiling an ambitious goal of vaccinating all residents by November.
As of Monday, 14.5% of the population had received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Our World in Data — the lowest figure among major economies.
“Measures against the coronavirus have greatly changed since vaccines have been developed,” Suga said during the debate on June 9.
Taniguchi of Keio University said an accelerated vaccine rollout will give a boost to the Suga administration, and it is amplifying optimism that the Olympics will go ahead. But she noted that the prime minister is not out of the woods yet, adding that if infections spike again because of the Olympics, he will be forced to wage his election campaign while on the defensive.
“It’s hard to predict what will happen, but it’s possible that an election could take place shortly after the Olympics is over — when people are happy that the games happened,” she said. “In a way, he may be making a bet.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.