Yoshihide Suga’s First 120 Days

By Ichiro Suzuki

On September 16, 2020, Yoshihide Suga, 72, became Prime Minister of Japan, after 7 years and 9 months of Shinzo Abe at the helm. Having served the Abe cabinet as Chief Cabinet Secretary for all those years, Suga built a reputation of solid and able man. It looked that he was an ideal politician to succeed Abe’s almost eight years that are considered as successful. He would be the best man to prevent Japan’s politics from drifting back to instability that allowed to have five prime ministers, including Abe’s first stint, in seven years prior to Abe’s eight years. Suga started with a 74% approval rate.

Contrary to very positive early expectations, Suga’s popularity started going south after his first 50 days. It was below 50% before the 100th day, at the time of Christmas. Before his 120th day, his approval ratings fell into the alarming thirties overwhelmed by a disapproval rating that was well over 40%.

There is only one reason behind the collapsing of approval ratings, the coronavirus. COVID-19 began spreading again in November. Before Christmas, daily numbers of new cases were twice as large as those experienced in summer. In the second week of January, daily new cases rose to 7,000 and January 19 had witnessed daily deaths of 100 for the first time. These are remarkably low numbers by global comparisons, at least outside of the Asia - Pacific region. According to Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, Japan’s deaths per 100,00 population is 3.7 so far, a fraction of 59.1 for Germany that was once touted for its handling of the pandemic. So far, the U.S., the U.K., and France have suffered 122.8, 137.8 and 106.7 deaths respectively per 100,000 people. By objective observation, Japan’s track record is commendable, and the country did it without hard lockdowns. (The government doesn’t have a legal authority to enforce hard lockdowns.)

However, the public doesn’t see it this way. At least, in international comparisons, Japan underperforms Taiwan or New Zealand that has limited to 0.03 and 0.51 deaths respectively per 100,000. The media blames the recent rise of the cases to campaigns to promote domestic tourism. They argue that the government moved too hastily to open up the economy, even to foreign visitors, before the virus was completely dead. As is the case with every other country, tourism and restaurant industries have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic, and are needed to be given a lifeline of some kind. Otherwise, a number of hotels and restaurants would be forced to be out of business, throwing hundreds of thousands of people onto the street. Therefore, the government had embarked on campaigns while the summer spike was yet to recede. 

As it turned out, as in almost everywhere in the northern hemisphere, COVID began to spread again, more aggressively than before, as temperature began to fall and the air became drier. The third wave  did not hit Japan until mid-November, later than Europe and North America, due to the country’s warmer weather. The media and opposition parties blamed the spike to the “Go to travel” campaign. While such a blame might be marginally appropriate, the vast majority of infections took place at restaurants and bars that locals frequent, as well as offices. Nonetheless, in early December, PM Suga under heavy pressure was forced to cancel the travel campaign. 

Calling off the campaign reportedly infuriated Toshihiko Nikai, the tourism industry’s boss as well as the Liberal Democratic Party’s Secretary General. Nikai was especially upset because the cancellation decision was made without prior consultation to him. Suga owes his premiership to Nikai. He wouldn’t have been where he is without Nikai’s support in the September LDP president election. Nikai heads a relatively small faction within the LDP. Though he has no desire to be the party president and the PM, his faction’s move has a strong influence on who gets elected to lead the party. This is why Nikai at the age of 81 continues to hold on to the position of the LDP Secretary General. Suga doesn’t afford to take Nikai lightly. 

In mid-December Suga was found to have been at a dinner party of eight people, at a steak restaurant in Ginza, with Nikai and six celebrities including baseball legend Sadaharu Oh. The revelation put Suga under heavy criticism since the government was asking people to refrain from going out at night, especially to stay away from a party of more than four. It was reported later that the dinner party was hosted by Nikai and Suga was simply told to make a brief appearance by Nikai in a short notice. It is speculated that it was Nikai’s revenge to unilateral cancellation of the travel campaign and that he wanted to show who had the upper hand.

The dinner party turned out to be a public relations disaster and the single most devastating blow to Suga’s reputation, sending his popularity into a deep hole. In addition, Suga has proved to be a very poor communicator who fumbled in a series of press conferences. Some in the LDP say that the party can’t win the next general election that has to be called before October. One might hope that the coronavirus becomes a lot less active during summer months, but would Suga rebound on a smaller number of infections? Should he stay unpopular in spring months, there might be a coup within the LDP to oust him.

Another face of Nikai is the head of pro-China MPs within the party. He was singled out as Japan’s most pro-China politician by the State Department under Donald Trump. There were some concerns that Nikai might move the country closer to China than what Washington can take it as tolerable amid growing tensions between the People’s Republic and the West as well as tensions in the East China Sea. So far, the bilateral relationship has not shifted to that direction. Japan is walking on a fine line between the hardline stance of the U.S. and what the country can afford to do as China’s geographically close neighbor.

About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banker from Tokyo, Japan.