Suga gains upper hand in party leaders debate, shows confidence about expanding vaccinations

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, left, answers questions from Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano during a party leaders debate in the Diet on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has demonstrated his confidence about expanding vaccinations against COVID-19 during his first party leaders debate with Yukio Edano, leader of the main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

As a House of Representatives election must be held by this autumn, Edano grilled the prime minister about the government’s measures against the novel coronavirus and the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. However, Suga, who seemed well prepared for the one-on-one Diet debate, proceeded at his own pace.

“I want to take this opportunity to express my thoughts about the novel coronavirus clearly,” Suga said from behind an acrylic panel set up to prevent infections.

This remark was made at the beginning of the debate when Edano called for the prime minister to set strict criteria for the lifting of a state of emergency.

“Vaccinations are progressing well,” Suga said. “At least 40 million shots can be administered by the end of this month.”

Suga spent a little over four minutes explaining the government’s inoculation strategy, such as a plan to finish vaccinating people who want to receive shots by October or November.

Feeling that the vaccination program has begun making rapid progress, Suga evidently aimed to take control of the debate by stressing such progress. He has set a goal of 40 million vaccinations by the end of June, with an eye to the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to start on July 23.

Ahead of their first party leaders debate, Suga made preparations, such as by reading documents about policies advocated by Edano, at the Prime Minister’s Office until the debate started on Wednesday evening. As it was obvious that the novel coronavirus would become the main topic for the debate, Suga looked less tense, telling people around him such things as, “Basically, this [debate] is like an extended session of the Budget Committee,” according to sources.

Under Edano’s leadership, the CDPJ has advocated a “zero coronavirus” strategy to contain community-acquired infections by implementing thorough testing and other measures. When Edano cited Australia and New Zealand as examples of countries where infections have been brought under control, Suga said Australia and other countries have imposed strong restrictions on private rights.

He then asked Edano: “Your party has been very cautious about strengthening restrictions on private rights. Now I want to ask you how we can get people to take tests.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The unusual circumstance of a party leaders debate being held amid a pandemic also served as a tailwind for the prime minister. With access to the debate venue limited to certain people, such as senior members of the ruling and opposition parties and relevant government officials, fierce jeering from lawmakers was absent.

Suga spent six minutes speaking about the previous Tokyo Games, making such remarks as: “I vividly remember the Tokyo Games 57 years ago. For example, the Oriental Witches [volleyball team] …”

That drew only minor jeers such as, “It’s too long,” and, “You aren’t answering the questions,” allowing Suga to continue to speak until the end in a detached tone.

With the prime minister gaining the upper hand, Edano lacked vigor throughout the debate. Regarding the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, he stopped short of calling for the cancellation of the Games, merely asking, “Is it really possible to protect the lives and livelihoods of the people?”

With public opinion divided over whether to hold the Tokyo Games, Edano apparently concluded that it would not be wise to make his position clear. He also did not mention the idea of submitting a no-confidence motion against the Cabinet. Edano’s rapid speech was muffled through his mask, and an official of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said sarcastically after the debate, “Mr. Edano spoke elegantly today.”

Aside from the vaccination strategy, the prime minister only repeated his previous statements and did not mention specific measures against the virus. When Edano asked him about whether the Tokyo Games can be held, Suga looked at the documents on hand and read out major COVID-19 measures for the Games.

On the other hand, Japanese Communist Party Chairperson Kazuo Shii pressed for canceling the Tokyo Games and repeatedly asked Suga why the Games must be held. However, Suga did not give a direct answer, repeatedly saying, “It is my responsibility to protect the lives of the people.”