Japan's Prime Minister Faces Dark Days Ahead


Yoshihide Suga succeeded Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in September and enjoyed enormous popularity — at first. His subsequent descent has been so rapid that his time in office may be among the shortest

Suga’s popularity has crashed to 33%, according to a recent survey for the Asahi newspaper, amid a resurgence of Covid cases. The economy has taken a fresh hit and the government declared states of emergency this month in Tokyo and surrounding areas. Speculation is rife that the Olympics, deferred until this summer, will be abandoned altogether. 

The prime minister's political prospects are grim and a general election must be held this year. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has run Japan for most of the post-World War II era, may oust Suga before voters do, according to Tobias S. Harris, author of “The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan,” published just before Abe said he was standing down because of illness. I corresponded with Harris, a onetime aide to a Japanese politician, via email about Suga’s travails and what Joe Biden’s presidency means for the country. Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our exchange: 

DANIEL MOSS: Can Suga recover from this slide in popularity, and how likely is it that he will be replaced before the general election?

TOBIAS S. HARRIS: The steep fall in Suga’s ratings, after enjoying some of the highest support ever, has significantly worsened his chances of survival. Whereas he once had an easy path to winning a full three-year term at the helm of the LDP in the September party election, his government’s handling of Covid-19 has significantly weakened his position. Abe, of course, suffered a similar collapse in support before his resignation: After almost eight years in which his support repeatedly recovered from shocks, the pandemic turned out to be the one thing his support could not withstand.

DM: Is this a personal repudiation of Suga, or is he a victim of circumstances?

I’m not entirely sure it’s possible to disentangle whether Suga has suffered due to the pandemic or a personal repudiation; the two are intertwined. Despite nearly eight years in the public eye as chief cabinet secretary, Suga was a relatively unknown quantity when he succeeded Abe. Whereas the public might have once been willing to accept him as a hyper-competent leader with relatively humble origins for a Japanese politician, his tardiness in managing the surge in cases and his aloofness in communicating with the public has critically undermined this image.

It may be difficult for Suga to regain the advantage even if the caseload declines and vaccine distribution limits subsequent surges. I suspect the LDP may already be looking for an alternative, given the need to contest an election this year. Suga’s best chance for survival is if his support recovers to the point that he can call a snap election, then take advantage of the opposition’s weakness to win a sufficiently convincing victory that the LDP cannot deny him a new leadership term.

DM: There seems to be a precedent where long-serving leaders like Yasuhiro Nakasone and Junichiro Koizumi are followed by a series of short-timers. Is there something about Japan's political system or the nature of the LDP that entrenches this pattern?

TH: The circumstances surrounding each of these examples was distinct enough that it’s difficult to say that the periods of short-lived prime ministers were necessarily the result of the preceding long-term premierships. For example, post-Nakasone, the chaos had more to do with an overdue backlash to the LDP’s endemic corruption, the end of the Cold War, and the bursting of the financial market and property bubble. After Koizumi, the LDP was under pressure from an increasingly credible Democratic Party of Japan and riven by internal disagreements. 

There’s probably something to be said about the ability of durable prime ministers to suppress these conflicts (although Koizumi probably widened intra-party conflicts). I don’t actually think it applies to Abe, who so thoroughly dominated the party that it’s hard to envision what a post-Abe agenda even looks like. Absent the pandemic, I still think structural conditions — a strong prime minister’s office that can control the ruling party and bureaucracy, the media-driven centralization of democracies everywhere, a weak opposition, and the public’s desire for stability — all suggest that durable LDP prime ministers are more likely than not.

DM: One theme in your book is how Abe dramatically expanded the machinery of the state. Is it ironic that Suga, his chief cabinet secretary, has failed to use that system to suppress Covid? 

THIt is one of the most interesting puzzles of the last year. Abe was a politician whose vision of leadership rested heavily on the need for statesmen to guide the nation through troubled times, and yet when faced with a major, multifaceted crisis under his watch, he fumbled the response, hesitating to make decisions and struggling to communicate effectively with the public, both areas that pre-crisis seemed to be among his best political skills.

One possible explanation for the failure is that it was simply timing: Abe’s government was old and sluggish and his cabinet lineup was not first rate, and therefore his government was unable to manage the challenge. But Suga’s struggles suggest that the issues are more structural. While centralizing power in the prime minister’s office means that leaders are less likely to be undermined by bureaucrats and backbenchers than in the past, it is no guarantee that they will have the information (or the prudence) to act swiftly and resolutely in a crisis, particularly one as fast-moving and with as much “fog of war” as the pandemic. 

The pandemic revealed something that political scientists had noted about Japan before the crisis but which has become more widely known now: The Japanese state is actually quite weak. Although it has developed a more majoritarian Westminster-style democracy, we’ve learned over the past year that even in a national emergency the government is limited in its ability to control private behavior and often has to work through prefectural and local governments to exercise its will. To be sure, it is precisely this weakness that has animated Abe and other statist reformers for decades.

DM: What can the government do that it hasn't done already? For example, a state of emergency doesn't actually give the prime minister the ability to enforce many restrictions. What's left in the toolbox?

TH: The Suga government, of course, is already working to expand its toolbox, with pending legislation that would give more teeth to a state of emergency declaration, most notably the ability to penalize non-compliance with business restrictions and public health measures (contact tracing, etc.). While this legislation has already been challenged on civil liberties grounds, if it passes, its powers could be available to the government as early as mid-February. Even without these powers, the government could alter the conditions of the declaration, which as of now is limited to only 11 prefectures and asks only that high-risk facilities limit their hours and that people try to telecommute more. The government is clearly reluctant to take these steps for fear of the economic impact, and thus its approach will continue to be reactive, but these steps nevertheless remain available.

DMAbe invested a lot of energy in cultivating a personal relationship with Trump. What does a Biden presidency mean for Japan?

TH: It will mean a more predictable type of U.S. administration less dependent on personal diplomacy and transactional bargaining. The most immediate impact of this shift is that the negotiations over Japan’s support for hosting U.S. forces in the country will likely be less contentious than they would have been under Trump.  

Tokyo’s fears that Biden could be looking for an understanding with China that slights Japan’s interests are overblown. Democratic foreign policy makers, including those who served in the Obama administration, have changed their thinking in response to China’s behavior during and since Barack Obama’s second term. The early signs suggest that the Biden administration will take a sharper approach towards China, including on Taiwan, and will work closely with allies like Japan. 

Stepping back from Biden in particular, the bigger challenge for Japan vis-a-vis the U.S. is what political polarization and instability mean for the ability of the U.S. to fulfill its commitments to its allies. I will never forget the Yomiuri Shimbun editorial published the day after the attack on the U.S. Capitol that suggested it showed the U.S. was unfit for global leadership. Throughout the 2020 campaign, I noticed much greater attention paid in the Japanese media to the manifestations of instability in U.S. democracy.

Japan has, of course, already felt the impact of U.S. polarization and gridlock acutely: First when the Obama administration was unable to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and then when Trump pulled out after campaigning against it. Given that the central pillar of Abe’s foreign policy was the idea that Japan has no alternative but to work to keep the U.S. engaged in the region, to the extent that domestic politics could prevent the U.S. from fulfilling this role, it is perhaps the single greatest foreign policy challenge facing Japan — and it’s more or less out of Japan’s control.

DM: Biden has named Kurt Campbell as his chief Asia adviser. Campbell is seen as the architect of the “Asia pivot” under Obama. How significant is this appointment for Japan? 

THGiven Campbell’s long history managing American relationships with Japan and other allies in the region, I think his appointment is reassuring to Japan. It shows that allied considerations will be paramount in the formation of Asia policy, and that, as already seems apparent, the Biden administration will look to allies first before negotiating with China or North Korea. Campbell understands Japan’s interests and has the relationships in Tokyo that will make the Japanese government feel like it is being heard and its interests respected in Washington.

DMAsian leaders often say they don't want to choose between China and the U.S. Is playing it both ways still a realistic option?

TH: I think so. After all, Japan, which has raised the alarm about China’s military power and is concerned about deterrence in the East China Sea, still wants Chinese students, workers and travelers to enter the country. Its companies still want to produce and sell in China, even if they want to produce in China less than before. For all the hostility to China on the part of the Japanese public, there just doesn’t seem that much appetite for economic (or political) decoupling. It’s a balancing act that will have to be managed continuously and could get progressively harder, but I don’t think Japan is prepared to stop trying.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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