Yoshihide Suga’s honeymoon period as Japan’s prime minister had barely begun when coronavirus intervened. Now, two months into his leadership, he finds himself battling a resurgent outbreak and disillusionment among voters.
Enthusiasm for the farmer’s son who worked part-time to pay his way through university has all but evaporated since he took office in late September. As Japan prepares for a holiday period that experts fear could be overshadowed by a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases, an anxious public has Suga in its sights.
After the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP) selected Suga to replace an apparently ailing Shinzō Abe as party leader and, following parliamentary approval, prime minister, his support rating was briefly 74%.
Since then, Japan has entered a third wave of infections, accompanied by unprecedented pressure on hospitals and anger at the role that one of Suga’s key policies may have played in allowing the virus to spread.
Japan has been less badly affected by 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 greyest societies may have got off comparatively lightly, but Suga’s insistence on encouraging people to travel and spend their way through the Covid crisis now looks ill-considered.
Launched in July, the Go To Travel campaign was intended to boost the economy by encouraging people to go on trips, with up to half the costs borne by the government.
Pressure mounted on Suga to halt the scheme as Covid-19 cases soared during November. Last week daily new infections exceeded 3,000 for the first time, and on Wednesday Tokyo reported a record 678 cases.
The government’s most senior health expert, Shigeru Omi, was among those calling for a Go To suspension, while a study (yet to be peer-reviewed) found a higher incidence of symptoms among people who had taken part in the scheme. Suga’s allies, however, continued to deny any link.
He could not, though, ignore opinion polls showing widespread public opposition to the travel scheme and growing disapproval of his cabinet. A weekend poll by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper showed support for Suga’s cabinet had plunged 17 points over the last month, to 40%.
Suga is now being talked about as an interim leader until the LDP elects a new president in September, a month before the next general election is due.
In a surprise announcement on Monday, Suga said Go To would be suspended between 28 December and 11 January. Tokyo and Nagoya joined Osaka and Sapporo – cities all with heavy caseloads – in being withdrawn before the rest of the country.
Newspaper editorials were scathing about Suga’s indecision and his apparent reluctance to regularly update the public on his pandemic response – an unusual stance for a man who addressed the media twice a day during almost eight years as Abe’s chief spokesman. His press conference on 4 December was his first in Japan since he took office.
The liberal Asahi Shimbun newspaper said in an editorial: “Since Japan’s efforts to tackle the health crisis are based mostly on requests for self-restraint that are not legally binding, people’s voluntary cooperation holds the key to success. How can the government expect public cooperation if the prime minister himself does not make a compelling case for its plans to bring the virus under control?”
Doubts about Suga’s ability to lead the LDP to victory in the election are growing inside his party. “It is possible that the prime minister’s office will lose a lot of its momentum if there is a rise in the number of people who think that the LDP can’t win with Suga,” Reuters quoted an unnamed government official as saying.
An LDP executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, questioned whether party candidates would want to put up posters of Suga in their constituencies during the campaign. “Suga’s administration started out as a ‘down-to-earth cabinet’ but it’s now turning into a ‘dark cabinet’,” he said.
Suga’s problems continued on Wednesday when it emerged he had ignored social distancing advice he had urged people to follow during the December 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 people, Suga has recently attended social gatherings, media reports said, including a visit on Monday to a steak restaurant in Tokyo where he talked baseball with six other diners, all men aged over 70.
“The two weeks leading up until the end of the year will be critical for Suga,” said Tobias Harris, a Japan expert at Teneo consultancy. “If the government can stabilise case numbers and reinforce the medical system before the new year holidays, while avoiding more stringent measures, he could turn a corner in early 2021 with the passage of a new stimulus package and the presumed beginning of vaccine distribution.
“But if cases continue to mount, he will simultaneously face more pressure to impose more stringent measures … and more criticism from within the LDP for having waited too long to react.”