Japan Cabinet Faces Growing Discontent from Public

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks at a press conference on Friday at the Prime Minister’s Office.

A sharp drop in the approval rating for the Cabinet led by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, as seen in the latest poll conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun, is deepening the sense of crisis in the government and ruling parties.

The result indicates public criticism of the government’s handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic and concurrent politics-and-money scandals. The government and ruling parties appear to be struggling to turn the tide.

“The numbers show how worried people are about the novel coronavirus. We should take this as their voice, urging us to implement tougher measures,” Hiroshi Moriyama, chairperson of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Diet affairs committee, told reporters on Sunday.

LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai said: “People are concerned about the novel coronavirus pandemic. It’s only natural for the government to be criticized.”

The approval rating of the Suga Cabinet has fallen by nearly 30 percentage points, from 74% to 45%, in just over three months since its inauguration in September. Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner of the ruling coalition, said, “[The figures] are the result of public distrust and discontent over the prime minister’s insufficient leadership and the lagging response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.”

“[The Cabinet] will be subject to severe scrutiny for the time being,” Yamaguchi said.

■ Aware of criticism

Suga was briefed Sunday on the latest developments in the coronavirus situation by a senior health ministry official, in Suga’s room in the office building for lower house members. He plans to receive such briefings during the year-end and New Year’s holiday season, while continuing to refrain from attending dinner events, according to sources close to the prime minister.

Seemingly aware of criticism that he has not provided sufficient explanations, Suga held a press conference on Friday, his second this month, and has appeared on TV shows. When taking questions from reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office, he seemed to answer in more details than before.

Suga aims to make COVID-19 vaccines available for the public in next spring to alleviate public concern, and host the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in summer. In the meantime, he hopes to record achievements in such areas as digitization and decarbonization.

However, there is likely to be some opposition to such reform policies. Suga has a weak base within the LDP, as he does not belong to any faction. Should he be unable to restore the approval rating to a higher level, he could lose the momentum to promote his policies.

One former cabinet member said, “The approval rating for the LDP is high, so there’s still some room.” However, a mid-ranking LDP lawmaker rejected such optimism, saying: “There’s no prospect the rating will increase. When the lower house election draws near, some may say we can’t fight in the election with Suga leading the party.”

■ Independents, middle-aged voters turn away

According to an analysis of the Yomiuri Shimbun poll, the drop in the approval rating for the Suga Cabinet is partly due to many non-affiliated or middle-aged voters rejecting the prime minister.

In the poll conducted Sept. 19-20, immediately after the Suga Cabinet was launched, the approval rating was 60% among non-affiliated voters. Since then, the number has continued to decline, plummeting from 47% in the poll on Dec. 4-6 to 25% in the latest one.

In the September poll, the Cabinet’s approval rating exceeded 70% in all age groups. In the latest survey, however, the figure dropped to 41% among those aged 40 to 59, compared to 74% in September. It was 40% among respondents aged 60 or older in the most recent survey, dropping from 74% in September.

Both age groups showed a decline of more than 30 percentage points in three months.

Among those aged 18 to 39, the approval rating was 54%, falling from 76% in September but still a majority.

The government-led reduction of mobile phone fees, one of Suga’s signature policies, met with the approval of 83% of all respondents. However, opinion on the Cabinet was divided even among those who approved of the lower phone rates, with 49% saying they supported the Cabinet and 39% saying they did not.