Expert says Suga hurt own image by sending mixed signals on COVID

With Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga having been in office for half a year, The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed Harukata Takenaka, a specialist in Japanese politics and a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), for insights on Suga’s performance so far. The following is excerpted from the interview.

The handling of the novel coronavirus has been the most pressing issue for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet over the past six months. However, the government’s measures were not enough and the number of deaths related to the disease has increased from that seen during administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The Suga government should have paid more attention to the pressure on the country’s medical system, which began to grow in mid-November. Safety and security are the foundation of all activities. People should be able to go to a hospital whenever they get sick, and they should be able to call an ambulance and see a doctor if they suffer a heart attack. If such social infrastructure is undermined, it will be impossible to advance other policies.

Suga clung to the Go To Travel tourism promotion campaign so much that he failed to respond quickly. If people travel, infections travel, too. The government promoted the Go To Travel and Go To Eat campaigns while also asking people to take thorough infection prevention measures. Since the Japanese are earnest people, I think they will basically cooperate with the government if it carefully explains its policy to them. Despite that, messages delivered by the government were inconsistent and people were confused as they did not know how to cooperate with the government.

Lack of cooperation between the central and local governments has not been addressed either. Tokyo’s 23 wards have seen a large number of people infected with the virus, and ward mayors have a lot of responsibility for preventing infections. Suga should not have left the handling of respective wards to the Tokyo metropolitan government alone. He should have created connections with ward mayors by means such as setting up a council of the central government and ward offices to communicate such messages as, “Please conduct tests,” and to ask, “Do you need some help?” Suga should have considered using national hospitals to secure beds, such as making them specialize in treating COVID-19 patients.

But it’s not too late even now.

Success or failure of the Games

The success or failure of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics depends on infection prevention measures. It is highly likely that infections will spread again before the Games. The prime minister should exercise leadership in implementing infection prevention measures. The Tokyo Games should be held after the coronavirus infections are contained.

I appreciate the policies that the Suga Cabinet has launched for future generations in the past six months, although I feel they have been overshadowed by coronavirus-related measures. The creation of the digital agency, insurance coverage for fertility treatments, and the 2050 carbon-neutral target (see below) are all of great significance.

However, the Abe administration was better at delivering messages to the people. People are hard-pressed to make ends meet. The government needs clear, simple messages to make people understand what it is trying to do. The Abe administration delivered good messages such as “Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens” and “100-Year Life Society.”

If marketing fails, products will not sell even if they are good. Likewise, people will not know how to accept policies if they are not well explained, no matter how good the policies are. Suga might think that some people will properly evaluate him if he sincerely works for the good of the country. But dramatic presentations, in a good sense, are still necessary.

Abe was good at communicating with reporters. On the other hand, he sometimes let things slip as he spoke too much. For Suga, it can be said that he rarely misspeaks and is taking a safe course of action. Even so, he needs to give more consideration to how to convey his policies.

Opposition lacks vigor

According to public opinion polls by various media outlets, as the number of infections increases, the Cabinet approval rating decreases, and as the number of infections decreases, the Cabinet approval rating increases.

Suga is good at “doing ordinary things in an ordinary way,” and if he does so, people will evaluate him properly. If the Cabinet approval rating rises, Suga will be able to gain solid ground within his party.

If opposition parties were stronger, Suga would have more trouble managing his administration. It does not seem to me that opposition parties are eager to take power. In the end, opposition party members have failed to reflect on their experiences when the former Democratic Party of Japan was in power, and they haven’t figured out why people do not have high expectations of them.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, now the largest opposition party in the country, should not end up simply criticizing the government. Rather, they should take a realistic, proposal-based approach. Unless opposition parties fully play their role and bring a healthy tension to politics, the country’s politics will never improve.

2050 carbon-neutral target

With the goal of stopping global warming, this key policy was announced by Suga in October. The government aims for net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 by achieving carbon neutrality, which means having a balance between emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and removal of the gases from the atmosphere by increasing forests and through other means.

The suspension and shutdown of coal-fired thermal power plants, the introduction of renewable energy sources such as solar power, and the greater use of electric vehicles hold the keys to achieving this goal.

Harukata Takenaka

Takenaka completed his PhD in political science at Stanford University. He worked for the Finance Ministry and had been an associate professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) before becoming a professor there in 2010. He wrote several books including “Corona Kiki no Seiji” (Politics of the COVID-19 Crisis) and “Sangiin toha Nanika” (What is the House of Councillors?). He is 50.