• POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Suga: Vaccines helped Japan turn the corner

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yoshihide Suga

Japan will continue to face challenges this year, from issues such as the pandemic to foreign affairs and the economy. This is the 13th and final installment of a series in which authoritative figures in various fields share their thoughts on such topics. The following text was excerpted from remarks by former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in a recent interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun.

At present, I feel relieved. During the year I served as prime minister, the battle to contain the novel coronavirus was endless.

I had decided the end date of the state of emergency [the third one declared under the Suga Cabinet] should be Sept. 12 last year, otherwise the conditions for holding the House of Representatives election wouldn’t be present and I surely would not be able to run in the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election. I had predicted that the percentage of vaccinated people would rise and the number of infected people would fall, and I wanted to concentrate on measures to deal with the coronavirus so that I would not feel any regrets even if I quit as prime minister at that time.

Exactly from around that time, the daily number of infected people began drastically decreasing, thus I have no regrets and feel at ease.

Concerning the measures to handle the coronavirus, while I wasn’t able to perceive its entirety, I thought the game-changer would eventually turn out to be vaccines. I had the firm belief that if as many people as possible could get vaccinated as soon as possible, then people’s lives and livelihoods would be protected.

Points of reflection

I think there are many issues to reflect on.

Regarding the measures, the framework is that prefectural governors have the authority to decide practical affairs, such as until what time eateries are allowed to open and which places are closed.

However, for ordinance-designated major cities, mayors have authority over public health centers. Because city governments do the actual work, I think it would be better to change the scheme so that mayors of these major cities will have similar authority to those of prefectural governors, if necessary.

Concerning natural disasters, when the Kumamoto Earthquake occurred the government changed a legal framework by going as far as revising the law. Mayors of ordinance-designated major cities can have greater authority if they are enthusiastic and they ask for the decision-making power.

For measures to cope with infections as well, I think it is better to follow this pattern.

In Tokyo’s 23 wards, public health centers are under the jurisdiction of ward offices. As the legal powers of the wards’ 23 mayors are completely different from those of other municipal mayors, I think it is necessary to make arrangements to improve the situation when the coronavirus pandemic calms down for a while.

Paying attention

Though we ask experts to firmly analyze conditions for measures to cope with the coronavirus, I think that politicians should take final responsibility and implement the measures. While voices urging that responses should be strict and implemented at any cost tend to be overwhelmingly strong, it is politicians who should simultaneously protect people’s lives and their daily livelihood, paying attention to sustaining jobs and businesses. It comes with responsibility, so I think doing so is important.

Concerning my conclusions about the issues of releasing treated radioactive water from Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and reviewing the burden of medical fees to reduce it for the young generation, I made the judgments when I thought the discussion stages had ended.

For the carbon neutral declaration to realize a decarbonized society in 2050 as well, I believed that there was no time to waste, so I issued the declaration on my own judgment without having consulted anyone. I had judged and implemented what was necessary at the time and what we can’t avoid doing.

During my morning walks that are part of my daily routine, passersby often say to me, “Thank you for the vaccines.” During the lower house election campaign period, people who gathered around me also said so. I also often hear words of gratitude about the lowering of mobile phone fees.

In a way, it feels extremely rewarding to be a politician. Everyone’s words of gratitude made me so truly happy that I was on the verge of shedding tears. I never intend to be prime minister again. If I did, I would be unable to keep smiling.

Oral medication

I think that the Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has made a very careful start and is proceeding while closely watching the situation.

Concerning measures to cope with the novel coronavirus, vaccines and oral medications are still important, and they should be put into use as soon as possible. I think it is better to respond to the current omicron variant, which is said to be highly transmissible, with vaccines and oral medication.

Basically, about 80% of people have been vaccinated twice, but I think the situation has changed mainly due to the omicron variant. So I think third shots of the vaccines should be provided as soon as possible.

I think it is better not to create an LDP faction out of the group of lawmakers close to me. It is not good if everybody moves to the right if I tell them to go to the right. It is more interesting to gather for and engage in each policy issue. Doing so can be beneficial to the public.

About lowering mobile phone fees, for example, I remarked about three years ago that the fees could be lowered by about 40%. Relevant laws were revised, reducing people’s financial burden by ¥430 billion in May last year, but it was the people who came together to work toward realizing this that was the big factor.

The same can also be said about the issue of fertility treatment policy, on which many people in the party cooperated.

There are still many walls creating sectionalism among administrative entities in the government. Though on my own I couldn’t resolve the problem, if it becomes an important issue, I believe an increasing number of people will agree with my views.

This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Koichi Mochizuki.

Profile

Yoshihide Suga, 73, was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1996. After having served in such posts as internal affairs and communications minister and chief cabinet secretary, he became prime minister in September 2020. He did not run in the LDP presidential election in September 2021, stepping down from the post of prime minister. His run as chief cabinet secretary was the longest ever, lasting seven years and eight months. Representing Kanagawa No. 2 Constituency, he has been elected to the Diet nine times.