Suga follows own path in the name of setting targets

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Inoculations against COVID-19 are key to the success of the government’s measures to combat the novel coronavirus. In this series, The Yomiuri Shimbun examines what has been going on behind the political scenes in connection with the vaccines.

“We know that 100 million doses of [COVID-19] vaccine will come in June. We will do this resolutely.”

So said Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the Prime Minister’s Office on the morning of April 23 to Taro Kono, the minister in charge of administrative and regulatory reforms.

Suga had hastily summoned Kono, and also told him that he would announce a target of completing vaccinations for the elderly “by the end of July.”

This was prompted by Suga’s knowledge that the central government would be able to distribute to local governments, by the end of June, far more than enough vaccine to administer two doses to the country’s about 36 million elderly aged 65 or older.

Up until then, most local governments had expected to finish vaccinating the elderly in their communities in August or later.

Kono thought local governments would be thrown into confusion if the central government got involved in the vaccination schedule, which had been left up to local authorities to decide.

Kono remonstrated with Suga many times, saying, “Please don’t announce [that target].”

But Suga, who had even considered completing inoculations by the end of June, would not give in. Kono could do nothing but look at the prime minister sullenly.

That same evening, Suga declared the government’s third state of emergency. While apologizing to the public for the declaration at a press conference, Suga expressed that vaccinations of the elderly would be completed by the end of July.

Suga was burning his bridges. He was thinking, among other things, about Britain, where the number of newly infected patients stood at 60,000 a day in January.

Infections had not been brought under control at that point, despite the government’s implementing lockdowns and other mandatory measures, including closing off cities. However, now that vaccinations have made progress there, the British people are returning to their normal daily life.

Now is the hardest time for Japan and should be a time for endurance. Soon, the atmosphere would surely change when vaccinations get into full swing.

Suga told himself that no matter what others said, he would fight through with just the vaccinations.

‘1 million shots a day’

Following his announcement that mass vaccination centers would be opened by mobilizing Self-Defense Forces doctors and nurses, Suga also articulated on May 7 a target of administering 1 million shots of vaccine a day.

According to a source close to the prime minister, the 1 million shots were “a figure proposed by Suga,” which was worked out without any concrete backing.

There are 72 million doses needed for two shots for each elderly person and there are 69 days from May 24, when the mass vaccination centers opened, through the end of July.

The number of 1 million was obtained by simply counting backward from the days needed to achieve the target.

Kono opposed this as well. If the target failed to be realized, the government would be bound to come under fire. “Even 700,000 shots a day would be good, wouldn’t it?”

Learning the figure just before Suga was to announce the target, Kono said this to Suga’s face, urging him to change his mind.

Kono stood his ground, reasoning that 700,000 would be the maximum number, adding a total of 100,000 shots to the daily average of vaccine doses administered in the past against the seasonal flu.

But Suga would not be persuaded. He strongly believed that if he said he would do this, others would act accordingly.

Kono is elected from a constituency in Kanagawa Prefecture as is Suga. The latter has favored Kono as a future candidate for president of the Liberal Democratic Party.

During the LDP presidential election in 2009, Suga worked hard to recruit LDP members who would recommend Kono as a candidate.

It was also Suga who appointed Kono as the minister in charge of COVID-19 vaccinations, since Suga thought highly of Kono’s ability to overcome difficulties and convey messages.

Brushing aside opposition from Kono, Suga rushed toward speeding up vaccinations.

Suga has accepted Kono even though he often clashes with those around him and sometimes acts recklessly. However, for the vaccination program, the roles have reversed.

“In normal times, everyone tries to stop Kono from acting recklessly. This time, however, it’s Kono who’s trying to keep the prime minister in check,” a Cabinet member said.

At the Prime Minister’s Office on the afternoon of May 19, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was in unusually good spirits, eating a mouthful of a sweet from a famed Japanese confectionery store.

“[Vaccinations] haven’t gotten fully underway yet, but as many as 400,000 shots have been administered a day,” Suga said smiling as he showed his smartphone screen to LDP Diet members and others who called on him.

It was the website of the Prime Minister’s Office, showing the number of shots that had been administered.

Vaccinations stood at 190,000 shots a day — combining those given to elderly people and medical service workers — on April 23.

On that day in May, however, the number of shots a day had doubled in about four weeks.

Three targets were established: completing vaccinations for the elderly by the end of July, administering 1 million shots a day, and starting mass vaccinations in Tokyo and Osaka.

With these three targets, despite objections from Cabinet members and bureaucrats, vaccinations were believed to be able to accelerate at once. Suga’s smile reflected his expectation of a positive result from these measures and his confidence in them.

One month ago, no such atmosphere existed.

“Prime minister, I have to say something unpleasant,” Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Norihisa Tamura said at the Prime Minister’s Office on April 22. “Even when the ongoing state of emergency approaches its end date, infections might still be on the rise.”

Suga made a wry face. It was one day before the government decided to declare its third pandemic-related state of emergency.

Suga had grown irritated, as his policy to balance measures against infections with those for sustaining economic activity were not progressing well, and his administration continued to be criticized even though the number of newly infected patients and deaths remained far smaller than in Europe and North America.

The state of emergency, which was put into place for Tokyo, Osaka and two other prefectures, was declared with the understanding that it might be extended from the start.

Cabinet members shared a common feeling that the original length of just over two weeks until May 11 would be too short to have any positive effect at a time when new, highly infectious variants were raging.

But Suga is now more self-confident. The targets of finishing vaccinations for the elderly by the end of July and 1 million shots a day were so disparaged by bureaucrats that an official of the health ministry complained, “It is us who want to hear the grounds for advocating such targets!”

However, Suga does not care about such criticism at all.

On May 13, former Chiba Gov. Kensaku Morita called on Suga at the Prime Minister’s Office. The two men are close friends and Morita said, “One million shots of vaccine a day is a good idea, isn’t it?”

Suga replied, “It is, isn’t it” with a satisfied smile. Suga would brag to a Diet member close to him, saying, “Who would dare say that if I didn’t?” Suga appears to be confident that in unusual times, unconventional methods will work.

Mobilizing the SDF

Suga pledged that he would “take all available measures,” symbolized by the mass vaccination center for which Self-Defense Forces doctors and nurses have been mobilized.

“I want to ask the SDF’s help with vaccinations.”

At the Prime Minister’s Office in January this year, Suga unusually bowed to ask for a favor from Kazuhisa Shimada, the administrative vice defense minister. In response, Koji Yamazaki, chief of the Defense Ministry’s Joint Staff, instructed his subordinates to get actively involved.

What the SDF considered was mass vaccination centers, as had been done abroad by renting out large facilities like baseball fields.

The debate at the Prime Minister’s Office was led by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita, the top administrative official of the government. Sugita came from the National Police Agency and specializes in crisis management.

A cross-ministerial, special-mission team comprised of about 10 officials, with Sugita at the top, adopted the idea of carrying out mass vaccinations, to complete the inoculations of elderly people before the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“If we fight in a standard way, we’ll lose the battle. The SDF is mobilized because it’s good at implementing measures as demanded by the situation,” Sugita explained to the people around him.

The medical assistance to be extended by the SDF is primarily based on provisions concerning the dispatch of its personnel for disaster relief activities under the Self-Defense Forces Law.

This time, however, their utilization would not constitute such activities according to the law, because there have been no requests from local governments.

There was another concern about the SDF mass vaccination tasks.

“When the rainy season begins, the danger of large-scale flooding disasters will increase. Wouldn’t such a special task interfere with our normal operations?” said a senior official of the Ground Self-Defense Force.

But Sugita believes the current situation, with infections continuing to spread, represents a “time of emergency.”

A government official mentioned another factor, saying, “The SDF is the only organization that has doctors and nurses and will obey the government without fail.”

Target by target

The method of setting a goal and hitting a single target is a technique often used by Suga. While setting a course for the establishment in September of a digital agency, which will assume the task of digitizing administrative services in a unified manner, Suga also had major mobile phone business operators reduce their service fees.

While fending off the bureaucratic sectionalism, he has given instructions and achieved these goals in a rapid succession to the point of seeming impatient.

Some people value Suga’s setting of targets.

“If they stir up the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy and local governments and hasten the pace of vaccinations even just a little, it will benefit the people,” an official close to Suga said.

Suga declared, “I will not issue another state of emergency” when he lifted the previous one in March, but was forced to declare yet another one in April. When he issued the state of emergency in April, he told the public he would take measures to “stem the flow of people in a short-term, intensive manner.”

But the number of new infections did not notably decline. His assertive remarks have been criticized as “casual” and “improvised.”

Are Suga’s aggressive methods all the more needed in times of emergency? Or do they show that he’s acting recklessly? It’s not clear what will be the fate of the prime minister, who has taken a chance on vaccinations. The success or failure of his gamble will be known in a few months.

The Yomiuri Shimbun