Japanese Prime Minister Suga chilly after isolated by domestic and international players

  • A COVID-19 outbreak across Japan has plummeted Suga’s popularity, leaving him vulnerable in upcoming elections
  • South Korean President Jae-In cancelled a pre-Olympics meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Suga after a chilly diplomatic row
  • The G7 has urged the Japanese PM to mend ties with President Jae-In, but to no avail

Why is Prime Minister Suga Cold?

Answer: A COVID-19 surge during the Olympics and a diplomatic row with South Korea are plummeting PM Suga’s temperature.

On September 16th, 2020, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga assumed office with an approval rating of 64% after the resignation of his popular predecessor Shinzo Abe. As the long-time sidekick of former PM Abe, many considered his succession as a continuity of the relatively popular Abe administration. PM Suga himself worked to execute PM Abe’s most important policies, including “Abenomics” and the amendment of the “peace clause” constitutionally limiting Japan’s military.

10 months into his term as Prime Minister, however, Suga has fallen from grace, now chilly from a combination of domestic backlash from his handling of COVID-19 during the Olympics and a diplomatic row with South Korean President Moon Jae-In.

For most of the pandemic, Japan, like many East Asian states, served as an example of how to handle the pandemic. Their death rate fell far below those of Western Europe and the US, while also keeping an open economy. Much of the world looked to Japan with high hopes, especially as the host of the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

However, many Japanese remained sceptical of their government’s handling of the pandemic, with PM Abe and Suga losing rather than gaining support, unlike many other leaders. In June, an outbreak of the Delta Variant, a variant twice as transmissive as the original COVID-19, swept Japan, with Tokyo now seeing its highest case rate ever. With more cases coming in from Olympic athletes, Suga has attempted to justify, with little avail, such a competition to the Japanese population.

Making matters worse, Korean President Moon Jae-In snubbed Prime Minister Suga, quitting their planned pre-Olympic sentiment over a diplomatic row. A lower-level Japanese diplomat made sexual comments about President Moon, leading to Moon backing out. This row comes after a recent deterioration of relations between the two during the late Abe, and now Suga, administration. Japan’s G7 allies have pushed him to mend ties with the Korean President, even inviting President Jae-In to the G7 summit in the UK, but he has refused.

Who is changing Prime Minister Suga’s Temperature?

Answer: Domestic voters, party members, and the international community are isolating PM Suga, leaving him chilly.

Prime Minister Suga’s background outside any particular faction within his party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), initially served as a charm to party power-brokers. Factions within the party believed they could gain an influence over him, competing for his ear.

However, party members have now largely turned away from PM Suga. In early August, the Prime Minister released a policy prioritizing hospital beds for severe COVID-19 cases and keeping moderate COVID-19 cases at home. For this, he experienced massive backlash, with his own party calling a conference to denounce the policy, leaving Suga isolated. Since then, his health minister has floated rolling back the policy if “things don’t turn out as [the administration] expect[s].”

Despite this opposition within his own party, Suga has achieved some policy successes since taking office. He passed two major legislations for digitization and a plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Digitization in particular served as one of his biggest policy goals while running to succeed PM Abe.

However, PM Suga failed to translate these policies into political support among voters. In the upcoming LDP leadership elections, where he polls at just 5%, voters are likely to focus more on his failures more than his successes. With a lame duck Prime Minister likely to lose re-election, LDP representatives prefer to wait for the September party leadership election to pick up new policies.

Domestic voters are also turning away from Prime Minister Suga. They see the crowd-less Olympics and rising Delta-variant COVID-19 cases as failures of his leadership. Before the Olympics, in April, the LDP lost all 3 off-season elections to replace resigning congress members, flipping 2 seats to the opposition and letting them keep a third. Later, in early July, voters handed Suga a clobbering in the Tokyo regional elections, with the LDP taking only 33/127 seats. In these elections, voters showed massive discontent with his cabinet, of which now only 28% of Japanese approve.

After his electoral failures, the Prime Minister hoped for a popularity boost from the Olympics, but this has not occurred. Instead, voters blame him for failing to implement stricter controls on incoming athletes. While moving away from Suga, voters have given their support to Tokyo’s mayor Yuriko Koike, who has pushed for more controls around the Olympics and the recent COVID-19 wave. Even if he survives the September LDP leadership elections, he must face an emboldened opposition and discontent voters. 

Internationally, Suga has continuously failed to secure much influence, leaving him isolated abroad as well as at home. A picture which floated around Japan during the G7 meeting in the UK said it all. While 6 of the world’s most powerful leaders made friends amongst one another, Suga stood at the sidelines, alone. During the G7 summit, he cancelled a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-In, to the dismay of his Western allies.

While they were supposed to meet before the Olympics, President Jae-In pulled out at the last minute over comments from a Japanese diplomat, leaving Prime Minister Suga hanging. He has failed to secure his foreign policy goal of forcing Korea to honor the 1965 Agreements, instead distancing himself from a key ally against China and a shared ally with the US. Even UNESCO has reconsidered Japan’s “industrial heritage,” as Suga’s Ministry of Culture fails its duties to inform on forced labor by Koreans in WW2. With a diminishing international reputation and little domestic support to fall back on, the Prime Minister finds himself chilly and isolated on all fronts.

What is driving Prime Minister Suga?

Answer: Used to the political backroom, PM Suga is trying to balance between continuing former PM Abe’s mandate and making his own policy agenda.

Prime Minister Suga started his political career right out of university, serving under LDP representative Hikosaburo Okonogi for 11 years before entering politics himself. He rose through the ranks of local and national politics before entering the Diet as an LDP representative. In 2006, he joined PM Abe’s first cabinet, becoming a close ally to the former PM. In this time, Suga mastered his political skills, serving as Abe’s Chief Cabinet Secretary for a record 2,820 days. In this position, Suga secured many policy wins for the former Prime Minister, including the institution of “Abenomics” and the opening of foreign worker visas. Voters commonly gave Abe large mandates, partly for these policies.

In this light, Prime Minister Suga now feels responsible for keeping this mandate alive. At the resignation of PM Abe, PM Suga ran on a campaign of continuity from the Abe administration. Normally, this would prove a smart strategy. PM Abe’s administration commonly bounced back from controversy with high approval ratings.

However, Prime Minister Suga’s time under Abe primed his policy skills but overlooked his ability to sell policy to the people. For this, he has not succeeded in capitalizing on the few policy successes he achieved, failing to give voters a grand vision to which to look toward. Instead, voters see the reality in front of them: skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and an ineffective administration.

In addition to his political background, Suga’s personal background informs his political strategy. The son of strawberry farmers, he comes from a different social group than most of the wealthy, higher class LDP leadership. Due to this background, he has stayed relatively independent, unaffiliated with any faction. While this position won him the election to succeed Abe, it now leaves him without a solid base of support within the party.

For this reason, no sector of the LDP feels particularly loyal to Prime Minister Suga. This small-town background also instilled in him the practices of small-town politics. Throughout his career, from local politics to his time as a representative, he stayed in touch with his constituents with face-to-face, on foot visits (commonly running through many pairs of shoes while campaigning). However, the position of Prime Minister requires a mastery of media and mass communication, a mastery which Prime Minister Suga failed to achieve in his tenure in national politics. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: A weak Japanese leader could have drastic consequences for East Asian security.

The South Korea-Japan alliance serves as one of the most important alliances for combatting the rise of China. With a more aggressive China signalling ambitions beyond Hong Kong, US allies in East Asia serve as a check on this (Xi Jinping’s) agenda. Unfortunately, the sparring between South Korea and Japan and Suga’s uncertain political future threaten the ability of the US, Japan, and South Korea to counter an ambitious China.

If he makes it through September’s LDP election but loses the general election, this could bring serious consequences for security and stability in the region. Opposition parties have criticized PM Abe and PM Suga’s anti-pacifist moves, and the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan administration (the largest opposition party) could put into question Japan’s ability to use it’s military for East Asian defence.

A weak PM Suga could also carry consequences with Japan’s ability to fight COVID-19. As the world has seen with new variants in Brazil, the UK, South Africa, and India, a government which cannot properly fight COVID-19 can lead to international disaster. Cases which ran through the Olympics hurt Suga’s legitimacy in claiming to take the pandemic seriously.

While he has declared another state of emergency, his own party has joined the opposition in opposing his policies to fight the pandemic…With a low approval of his pandemic handling, he cannot politically take the steps needed to fight the pandemic. According to The Economist, foot traffic around Tokyo has fallen much less than previous states of emergency, a sign that people do not take his government’s warnings seriously. If this continues, Japan could see the next worrying variant, a legacy Prime Minister Suga likely wishes to avoid.