Since his first day in office, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had sought to stamp down the coronavirus and revive the nation's battered economy.
But he never came close to achieving either goal.
Ultimately, the public's relentless frustrations over the country’s protracted vaccine rollout and empty promises on containing the pandemic proved to be his undoing, experts say.
Since taking the baton from Shinzo Abe last September, Suga has tackled the coronavirus as his highest priority, a gigantic task that has preoccupied most of his administration. The Suga Cabinet’s initial approval ratings of over 70%, the third highest for an administration, started dipping sharply and were eclipsed by disapproval ratings just two months into his term, as the country posted more than 2,000 daily COVID-19 infections in November for the first time.
Suga exited the Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership race Friday, deeming his chances of winning had become slim, as worries from within the ruling party over the upcoming general election have been brought to the fore, political sources say.
One of the biggest bets that Suga placed during his one-year term in office was on a vaccination blitz to stem the pandemic and get the world’s third-largest economy going. But Japan’s rollout was late from the get-go and didn't get off the ground until mid-February, more than two months behind the U.K. and the U.S. Over the first few months of the campaign, it was moving slower than all other OECD nations.
In April, Suga announced a bold goal to complete the vaccinations of all older people wishing to get the shot by the end of July. His push to fuel the vaccine drive has accelerated the pace of the rollout to a peak of about 1.5 million per day, 2.5 times the usual pace of influenza vaccination. By the end of July, 75.5% of people age 65 and older had received two shots. That prompted Suga to claim in early August that his target has been achieved, but the share of older people who are fully vaccinated had since risen to 87.1% by Friday, according to the government data, suggesting inoculations were short of Suga's goal by the target date.
From early in the year, Suga had calculated that the vaccine blitz would help contain the pandemic by the end of August.
The Tokyo Games, beginning with the Olympics in late July, were to serve as a symbol of the nation's victory over the coronavirus.
But with a still-low vaccination rate compared with other industrial countries, the rollout has not been the game changer he had hoped it would be. Now, despite more than 47% of all residents age 12 and over having been fully vaccinated, the government has been having a hard time containing a surge in new cases brought about by the delta variant, a highly transmissible strain that has quickly outpaced other strains in Japan since it was first detected in a domestic patient on April 20. The revelation of contaminated batches of some Moderna vaccines has also slowed down the rollout in recent days.
In early January, Suga issued a state of emergency covering Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures – the second to have been declared since the pandemic began and the first under his administration. He promised to turn things around in one month, but the state of emergency was extended twice until late March. Similar promises have been made and broken as he issued two more states of emergency, including the current one.
Suga’s image as a leader has also been thrown into question due to his struggle to effectively communicate at news conferences and other events. When it came to discussing the pandemic, Suga often turned to Shigeru Omi, head of a government advisory team of experts, to help explain the situation to the public.
“My impression is that Suga came up short in whatever he did on coronavirus,” said Tomomichi Akuta, senior economist at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting in Tokyo. “No matter what new countermeasures he took, the reality was that he faced a wave of new infections that exceeded expectations over and over again.”
Another item that has invited stiff opposition from the public was the administration’s sudden policy shift in early August that effectively limited COVID-19 hospitalizations to serious cases or those at high risk of developing severe symptoms. The decision was made to ease the burden on front-line health care workers.
Though the administration was forced to adjust the policy only days later, deciding that patients with moderate symptoms would also be admitted to hospital, that hasn't always worked in practice. Doctors in Aichi Prefecture say that 90% of its COVID-19 patients are now recuperating at home, as some who cannot be hospitalized due to a surge in new infections.
The Suga administration has always been reacting to issues that arise and has put “too much burden on the health care system,” the Aichi Prefecture Federation of Medical Worker's Unions said in a statement Friday.
The bed shortage for COVID-19 patients has become so dire that Masataka Inokuchi, vice president of the Tokyo Medical Association, has recently warned that if the current pace of new infections continues, the health care system could soon exceed its capacity. Lives will be lost that otherwise could be saved, he added.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.