Huntington Beach, California – Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Sept. 3 announcement that he will not run for re-election as the head of the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) surprised some and relieved others as he leaves behind a mixed legacy during a tumultuous year in office.
Suga’s successor will encounter an overtaxed health care system struggling with COVID-19, a recalcitrant Xi Jinping and a damaged economy facing headwinds. Other immediate challenges involve addressing the country’s demographic crisis, reinvigorating private sector companies and managing critical geopolitical relationships that are key to collective security.
While media reports are replete with accounts of the prime minister’s shortcomings, it is important to note that Suga’s record consists of both failures and policy accomplishments.
Facing mounting frustration over his handling of COVID-19 as the nation endures its largest wave of the coronavirus to date, Suga’s government had lost the trust of the Japanese public. The approval rating for his Cabinet had dipped to 29% in an August Jiji Press opinion poll and to 26% in a separate Mainichi Shimbun poll.
It was clear that LDP leaders came to view Suga as a burden who was damaging the party with some attributing blame to him for various election losses this year.
This despite the fact that many viewed Suga as the one who could continue his predecessor’s policies that he supported so effectively when serving as then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Chief Cabinet Secretary for eight years.
Critics of Suga say that he lacked charisma, was unable to connect with the public and suffered from poor communication skills that hampered his relations with members of his own party and the media. He has also been pilloried for not having a robust policy platform and for his inability to express empathy with voters.
Others have cited his political vulnerability from not having his own party faction.
Suga’s detractors also argue that he handled COVID-19 poorly (cases numbers have exploded in recent weeks) and that his insistence on holding the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as the pandemic surged amid strong public opposition was irresponsible, leading to further spread of the disease and loss of life.
Other criticisms of the prime minister included Japan’s slow COVID-19 vaccine rollout, repeated states of emergencies that restricted social activities and hurt eatery businesses in addition to an ill-advised Go To Travel domestic travel campaign that many argue worsened the COVID-19 outbreak.
Most recently, Suga was excoriated for a policy enacted last month that reserved hospital beds only for patients with the most severe symptoms, which resulted in 118,000 COVID-19 patients being forced to stay at home without proper care.
While Suga has been taken to task for not being able to come to grips with Japan’s urgent needs during his time in office, he did have some achievements:
- He maintained former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy of advocating for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and support for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) as a response to China’s militarization of the South China Sea and increasingly aggressive conduct.
- As the first foreign leader to meet U.S. President Joe Biden in person, Prime Minister Suga reaffirmed the centrality of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Notably, his government worked with the Biden administration to make China the principal focus of the alliance, as laid out in both countries’ joint statement on March 16.
- Suga’s government brought added focus to relations with Taiwan as well as to the collective threat posed by a possible Chinese invasion of the island. To this end, during their April 16 meeting at the White House, Prime Minister Suga and President Biden emphasized “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”. In particular, State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama spoke of the need to “protect Taiwan as a democratic country” and emphasized the challenges posed by China concerning its capabilities in space, new missile technologies, the cyber domain, nuclear weapons and conventional forces.
- Amid public opposition and at great economic cost, Suga followed through with hosting a well-executed Olympics where the Tokyo Organizing Committee, athletes and volunteers overcame great adversity that provided an extraordinary Games where broken records and acts of kindness abounded.
- Geopolitically, holding the Games was an important demonstration that democracies can pull off important endeavors during a worldwide pandemic and at a time when authoritarianism is on the rise. The timing of this accomplishment was crucial — just weeks after Beijing’s saber rattling celebration of the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial featuring Xi’s stark July 1 speech that ran counter to the spirit and values of the Olympic Games.
- Although Japanese citizens disapprove of Suga’s performance in battling the pandemic, it bears saying that Japan’s case percentage is low compared to many countries (Japan has 12,355 infections per million and 129 deaths per million) and it has the fewest COVID-19 deaths of all the Group of Seven countries. This is significant given the glacial pace of Japan’s vaccination campaign.
- In October of last year, Suga made public an ambitious climate policy goal by pledging Japan would become carbon neutral by 2050 — a full 10 years before the world’s second largest economy, China, which aims for carbon neutrality by 2060.
- In an effort to move forward Japan’s online transformation and to modernize the nation’s outmoded administrative processes, Suga launched the Digital Agency on Sept. 1. This upgrade aims to standardize the government’s IT systems and digitalize services ranging from the My Number personal identification program, health care data, passport applications, the delivery of government benefits and vaccine certificates, among others.
- Suga also made two noteworthy populist pitches to voters. 1) The prime minister advocated on behalf of consumers for a reduction of mobile phone rates, resulting in three mobile phone carriers promising to lower fees. 2) Additionally, Suga pledged for Japan’s national health insurance to cover expensive fertility treatments for couples struggling to conceive.
Without question, Suga was dealt a tough hand upon assuming office last September. He inherited a once in a hundred-year pandemic, a difficult relationship with former President Donald Trump, China’s ominous regional conduct and an unpopular, costly Olympic Games that had already been delayed a year.
Within this complicated landscape, Prime Minister Suga had his share of missteps and contributions.
Prime Minister Suga departs office with Japan facing significant headwinds. While his turbulent prime ministership will be remembered primarily for his handling of COVID-19, his time in office also included actions that yielded important policy outcomes during a period of severe challenges and uncertainty.
Ted Gover, Ph.D., is director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University.
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