Suga Apologizes for Attending Group Dinner

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has apologized for attending a dinner with seven other people amid a spike in novel coronavirus infections.

“There was enough distance between the diners. However, I’m sincerely sorry for causing a misunderstanding among the public,” Suga said to reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday.

Suga has faced severe criticism from the ruling and opposition parties over the dinner, which was held despite government calls to refrain from dining in large groups.

Eight people attended the dinner on Monday, including ruling Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai and LDP Acting Secretary General Motoo Hayashi.

According to attendees, they sat side by side at counter seats to avoid facing each other, but there were no shielding materials such as acrylic sheets between them, and they did not wear masks while dining, against government advice.

The government has not set strict guidelines concerning group dining amid the pandemic, but it has called on prefectural governors to limit the Go To Eat campaign to support dining establishments to groups of four or fewer diners.

Figures within the LDP have come out in defense of the prime minister, including Economic Revitalization Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who said at a House of Representatives Cabinet Committee meeting on Wednesday, “[The government] has not asked the public to refrain from dining in groups of five or more uniformly.”

However, he stressed that “Dining in large groups for a long time raises the [infection] risk, so the public is urged to do everything possible to avoid doing so. If it is unavoidable, taking thorough measures to prevent infection is advised.”

At a press conference earlier on Tuesday, however, Nishimura said, “As more than 80% of clusters linked to dining out involved groups of five or more people, the government is asking the public to make as much effort as possible to avoid dining in large groups for long periods.”

LDP Policy Research Council chair Hakubun Shimomura, said: “Considering the economic downside to having dining establishments that cannot operate, I think it’s a bit of an overreaction to criticize the holding of a dinner at which infection precautions were taken.”