Japan’s Prime Minister must quickly Paint a Bigger Policy Picture

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Takashi Mikuriya speaks during the interview.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga launched his administration last year with a pledge to basically continue the policies of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe. At a time when the novel coronavirus pandemic was running rampant, I think Suga’s decision to avoid creating uncertainty in Japan’s national politics was a good move.

However, Suga dropped the ball when he refused to appoint several recommended scholars to the Science Council of Japan. I’m baffled as to why Suga, so soon after becoming prime minister, did something that anybody could predict would descend into a political brawl. This episode was a stinging blow to Suga. Perhaps essentially keeping the previous administration in place allowed complacency to set in.

During his time as prime minister, Abe chalked up notable achievements in foreign policy and through his Abenomics economic policies. His administration focused on complex policies that the public saw as being well over their heads. Suga’s commitment to lowering mobile phone charges and ending the use of hanko seals on many official documents was probably intended to show his administration was more aware of what ordinary people want. Suga can be applauded for getting the government involved in matters that tangibly affect people’s daily lives for the first time in years, but it would be disappointing if he doesn’t go any further than that.

There’s a difference between a chief cabinet secretary making minor regulatory reforms that shape daily lives and a prime minister making reforms. What exactly does Suga want to achieve through regulatory reforms? His administration will run out of steam unless he compiles bigger policy plans in a more structured way. I get the feeling that Suga’s administration as a whole has not yet painted a picture of what it wants to do.

Suga is not as enthusiastic about constitutional reform as Abe was. For Suga, reforms that have real relevance to the lives of ordinary people appear more important than changing Japan’s top law. I doubt discussions on constitutional reform will make much progress while Suga is in power.

■ Courage to apologize needed

Being prime minister is a position that requires talking about many things to the public. Suga severely lacks practice in speaking in his own words.

Rather than a politician with a silver tongue, Suga was more of a “political party man” who let his actions do the talking. During his almost eight years as chief cabinet secretary, he stuck to saying the bare minimum possible. As the top government spokesman, Suga got away with that because people accepted that he was not a talkative person. However, that’s not good enough for a prime minister.

Abe also failed to properly explain issues at times. Even so, Abe was willing to fire off a riposte when a political opponent left an opening. Suga lacks this willingness to go on the offensive; he always seems to be on the receiving end and never shoots back. Suga’s inability to deliver clear explanations could become his administration’s Achilles’ heel.

I’m reluctant to say whether the government’s coronavirus countermeasures are working well without knowing how the situation will pan out down the road. More than one year has passed since the virus arrived in Japan, and the public also has learned a lot about it. We’ve become a nation of “100 million critics” scrutinizing every move the government makes on the coronavirus issue, so of course many people would lean toward giving a low grade.

Suga was set on promoting the domestic Go To Travel subsidy program to keep the economy’s wheels turning. However, public support for his Cabinet dropped, and Suga did a U-turn and suspended the travel campaign after a surge in coronavirus cases made it untenable. I think suspending the campaign was a reasonable decision, but if Suga was going to pull the pin at that point, he should have done so earlier rather than grimly hanging on for a while. Suga will quickly lose the confidence of the people if they get the impression that he eventually gives up under strong criticism.

In my opinion, the decision to declare a state of emergency in the Tokyo metropolitan area and three surrounding prefectures on Jan. 7 also came too late. If Suga was going to issue such a declaration, he should have done so before the New Year period, when people frequently get together. If Suga makes an error of judgment, it’s better to honestly apologize to the public. A leader also needs the courage to do this.

■ Can Suga change?

The two biggest issues facing the Suga administration in 2021 are shaping up to be the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics and the timing of a dissolution of the House of Representatives for an election.

There is absolutely no guarantee that the coronavirus will have been brought under control before the Games start in July. How will the government get around this? Suga was riding high in the polls after his administration was launched, and speculation swirled that he might quickly dissolve the lower house. However, with the pandemic raging and Suga’s support falling, talk of a dissolution has evaporated. In effect, Suga’s power to dissolve the lower chamber has been reined in.

An administration will drift along when the threat of dissolution for an election is absent. Suga must make a bold decision at some point to avoid being “cornered into dissolving the lower house” like the administration of then Prime Minister Taro Aso was in 2009. Whether Suga can transform himself from a chief cabinet secretary into a genuine prime minister capable of staying in power for a long period hinges on how he uses his right to dissolve the lower house.