Sluggish approval rating sends shock waves through Japan’s new Cabinet

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (front row, center) and members of his new Cabinet prepare to pose for a photo at the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo on Wednesday.

A recent Yomiuri Shimbun survey showing the lowest-ever approval rating for the Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has left the government and ruling parties reeling.

The survey, conducted Wednesday and Thursday, revealed that Wednesday’s Cabinet reshuffle lacked the power to overcome public dissatisfaction on issues relating to the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification — widely known as the Unification Church.

“There may be cases in which some people have had connections without knowing it. It’s difficult to draw a line showing where problems begin,” Kishida reportedly told those close to him Thursday, referring to the difficulty of dispelling doubts over links between the religious group and Cabinet members and other politicians.

When offering ministerial posts in his reshuffle, Kishida urged each lawmaker to check and declare connections to the Unification Church and to sever all ties with the group.

However, more than 50% of survey respondents said Kishida’s response to the issue was “insufficient.”

“At this point, whatever we do will be perceived as being not good enough,” a senior government official said of the survey results. “The only way forward is to continue explaining the situation thoroughly.”

A source close to the prime minister said, “We thought the wind might shift slightly after the personnel shake-up, but things haven’t turned out as we’d expected.”

It has been learned that seven of the 19 ministers in the new Cabinet have some kind of connection to the Unification Church. Some within the ruling parties believe appointing those people to the Cabinet irked members of the public who had hoped lawmakers with no connections to the religious group would be chosen instead.

Future uncertainties

Despite a landslide victory in the House of Councillors election in July, the prime minister has continued to face challenges, such as soaring prices and the resurgence of novel coronavirus infections. Issues related to the Unification Church, which came to light after the fatal shooting of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have added fuel to the fire. Opposition to a state funeral for Abe continues to grow within the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and other parties.

“[We’re facing] triple or even quadruple challenges,” said a senior member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who serves as a lawmaker in the upper house. “If the opposition parties doggedly pursue these issues during an extraordinary Diet session in the autumn, the situation will become even more difficult.”

The opposition parties have so far struggled to find an effective way to attack the Kishida Cabinet. Now, however, they are poised to press the government hard over the Unification Church.

“The Cabinet reshuffle was intended to distract the public from the Unification Church issue, but people won’t be deceived by such deception.” CDPJ leader Kenta Izumi said.

Nobuyuki Baba, co-leader of Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party) also criticized the government, saying, “There’s been no action to deal with rising prices, and the response to the Unification Church issue is insufficient, too.”

‘No mistakes’

LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi voiced a desire to overcome such challenges by delivering policy-driven results, saying, “We take the decline in the approval rating seriously and aim to put maximum priority on measures to deal with the economy and rising prices, which are of great concern for people.

“Also, as public concern is growing over the situation in Taiwan, we intend to work on fundamentally strengthening our defense capabilities.”

LDP General Council Chairperson Toshiaki Endo said, “Now that we have a cabinet geared for practical work, we can commit ourselves to solving each issue in turn, including our response to the novel coronavirus.”

An experienced lawmaker newly appointed to the Cabinet said, “The Cabinet’s approval rating is still above 50%, so we’re not facing a crisis that could push the administration to the brink of collapse.”

But people around the prime minister remain cautious, with one saying, “At a time like this, it’s important that the government not make any mistakes in its ‘core work,’ such as measures to deal with COVID-19 and the economy.”