YOshihide Suga’s honeymoon as Prime Minister of Japan had only just begun when the coronavirus intervened. Now, two months into his leadership, he faces a resurgent outbreak and voter disappointment.
The enthusiasm for the farmer’s son who worked part-time to pay for college has all but disappeared since taking office in late September. As Japan prepares for a holiday season that experts fear could be overshadowed by a surge in Covid-19 cases, a fearful public is targeting Suga.
After the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) chose Suga to replace a seemingly ailing Shinzō Abe as party leader and, following parliament’s approval, Prime Minister, his support figure was briefly 74%.
Since then, Japan has plunged into a third wave of infections, accompanied by unprecedented pressure on hospitals and anger over the role that one of Suga’s key policies has played in spreading the virus.
Japan has been less affected by the coronavirus than many countries, with 185,444 infections and 2,715 deaths since the first case in January, and it has avoided the strict lockdowns seen elsewhere.
One of the world’s grayest societies may have come off it relatively lightly, but Suga’s push to encourage people to travel and work their way through the Covid crisis now seems ill-considered.
Launched in July, the Go To Travel campaign aimed to boost the economy by encouraging people to travel, with up to half the cost borne by the government.
Pressure on Suga increased to end the scheme when the Covid-19 cases exploded in November. Last week, there were more than 3,000 new infections daily for the first time, and Tokyo reported a record 678 cases on Wednesday.
The government’s top health expert, Shigeru Omi, was among those calling for a Go To suspension, while a (not yet peer-reviewed) study found symptoms to be more common in people who participated in the scheme. Suga’s allies, however, continued to deny any link.
However, he could not ignore opinion polls showing widespread public opposition to the travel program and growing disapproval from his cabinet. A weekend poll by Mainichi Shimbun newspaper found that support for Suga’s cabinet had dropped 17 points to 40% in the past month.
Suga is now being talked about as interim leader until the LDP elects a new president in September, a month before the next general election.
In a surprise announcement on Monday, Suga said Go To would be suspended between December 28 and January 11. Tokyo and Nagoya joined Osaka and Sapporo – cities with heavy loads – and were withdrawn earlier than the rest of the country.
Newspaper articles were scathing about Suga’s indecision and his apparent reluctance to keep the public regularly informed of his pandemic reaction – an unusual stance for a man who spoke to the media twice a day as Abe’s lead spokesman for nearly eight years. His press conference on December 4 was his first in Japan since he took office.
The liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun said in an editorial, “Since Japan’s efforts to address the health crisis are mainly based on requests for self-control that are not legally binding, people’s voluntary cooperation is the key to success. How can the government expect public cooperation if the Prime Minister himself does not provide compelling arguments for his plans to get the virus under control? “
Doubts are growing within his party about Suga’s ability to lead the LDP to victory. “It is possible that the prime minister’s office will lose much of its momentum if there is an increase in the number of people who think the LDP cannot win with Suga,” Reuters quoted an unnamed government official.
An LDP director, speaking on condition of anonymity, wondered if party candidates would want to put up posters of Suga in their constituencies during the campaign. “Suga’s administration started as a ‘sober closet’, but is now turning into a ‘dark closet,’” he said.
Suga’s problems continued on Wednesday when it was revealed that he had ignored social distance advice that he had urged people to follow during the bōnenkai season, when friends and colleagues meet to eat, drink and “forget the year”.
Despite his warnings against dining in groups of more than four, Suga has recently attended social gatherings, according to media reports, including a Monday visit to a steak restaurant in Tokyo where he spoke baseball with six other diners, all men over 70.
“The two weeks leading up to the end of the year will be critical for Suga,” said Tobias Harris, a Japan expert at Teneo Consultancy. “If the government can stabilize the number of cases and strengthen the medical system ahead of the New Year holidays, while avoiding more stringent measures, it could turn a corner in early 2021 with the introduction of a new stimulus package and the likely start of vaccine distribution.
“But as things continue to pile up, he will simultaneously face more pressure to impose tougher measures … and more criticism from the LDP for waiting too long to respond.”