Public support for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga hit record lows, polls for two major newspapers showed Monday, turning up the heat on the unpopular leader less than a month before he faces a challenge as head of the ruling party.
Suga failed to capitalize on delivering the Olympics for the nation stricken by COVID-19, as a fresh wave of infections has forced the government to declare a fourth state of emergency in Tokyo and most urban areas amid a sluggish vaccination rollout.
A Mainichi newspaper poll showed public support for Suga slid below 30% for the first time, to stand at a dismal 26%, while the Nikkei daily put his rating at 34%, in line with a record low hit in its survey last month.
One of the polls also showed that Suga's possible rivals for the top job, such administrative reform minister Taro Kono, who is leading Japan's vaccination push, and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, were more popular with the public.
The 72-year-old prime minister also faced rare criticism from writer Haruki Murakami, who said that if Suga was able to see the way out of the pandemic, "He must have very good eyesight for his age."
"I'm the same age as Suga, and I don't see a way out," the author of the 1987 novel "Norwegian Wood" said in a radio appearance Sunday.
"That man has ears that don't hear much, but his eyes are exceptionally strong. Or perhaps he just sees what he wants to see," Murakami added.
The comments were among the most trending topics on Japanese Twitter. Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato did not comment on the statements at his regular morning news conference.
Despite the disappointing ratings, the party's powerful secretary-general, Toshihiro Nikai, reiterated his support for the prime minister in a Monday interview with Kyodo News.
"In the current difficult situation, he's working hard every day as the prime minister. It's very good for the party if he continues to be in charge," Kyodo cited Nikai as saying.
Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Suga, Nikai urged the government to deploy "bold" spending from its emergency budget reserves as part of an economic stimulus package, which he was tasked with crafting by the prime minister.
Both Kono and Ishiba, who have yet to declare if they will run in the Sept. 29 contest, were backed by 16% of respondents when asked by the Nikkei who would be the best as the new leader of Suga's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Suga, who has said he would fight to stay in his post, came in fourth at 11%, two points behind low-key former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, 64, who declared his candidacy in a policy speech Thursday.
The winner is virtually assured of being prime minister because of the LDP's majority in the Lower House.
Popularity ratings are being closely watched because the new chief must lead the party to a general election by Nov. 28, but which is expected earlier.
Unlike last year, grassroots LDP members will vote along with its members of parliament, which could make the outcome harder to predict. And novice lawmakers, fearful of losing their seats, may be wary of following their elders' orders.
The LDP-led coalition is not expected to lose its majority in the powerful Lower House, but forecasts suggest that Suga's party could lose the majority it holds on its own, an outcome that would weaken whoever is leading the LDP.
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