GAKU SHIMADA, Nikkei deputy editor
TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried to make up for gym closures due to the coronavirus pandemic by walking 10,000 steps a day on weekends. He walks around his house in Tomigaya, Shibuya, or inside the prime minister’s official residence in central Tokyo.
But one thing the 65-year-old leader has been unable to replace is the dinner meetings with business leaders, news media executives and fellow politicians that he used to cherish as a way to exchange views and gauge public opinion.
The dinners have been on hold since March 19, and it looks like it has taken a toll. According to the latest Nikkei opinion poll taken this month, his approval rating took an 11-point dip from the previous month to 38%, tying his previous low in this second stint as top leader.
After the meals, the prime minister would sometimes share with his aides what he had learned during the conversation.
“I never knew that minister was so popular,” he would say, when a guest praised one of his cabinet members.
The feedback wouldn’t always be positive. “This policy isn’t being communicated properly,” he would say. “We’ve got to change the way we explain it to the public.”
Most politicians return to their constituencies on weekends to talk with voters, which gives them a sense of what their concerns are. It is not so easy for the prime minister, who stays in Tokyo in case of national emergencies.
He usually stays within the walls of the prime minister’s office, surrounded by politicians close to him or the mandarins of Kasumigaseki, the district where the capital’s cabinet ministries are located.
“If you don’t make a conscious effort to understand the public, you tend to drift away from what is happening outside,” one prime minister alumnus said.
During these three months, Abe has misread public opinion several times. Foremost of those is when he had to retract the unpopular decision to give 300,000 yen ($2,800) in coronavirus support to households that had seen a reduction in income, and pay instead 100,000 yen to everybody in Japan.
“I should have decided earlier,” the prime minister later told aides remorsefully. If he had had his antenna up, meeting business leaders or academics for dinner, the policy reversal might have been swifter, limiting the damage incurred.
Looking back, this delay in decision-making was the beginning of a cycle of bad news for Abe. Weeks later, a massive campaign on Twitter forced Abe to abandon a plan to extend the retirement age of public prosecutors, so he could keep an ally in office.
Analysts wonder if such a negative campaign would have occurred on social media if it were the Abe of 2015. Back then, the prime minister pushed through national security legislation, ignoring the barrage of criticism from opponents.
But this time, he backtracked on the 300,000 yen aid, reversing a cabinet decision that had already been made. The sight of the prime minister in effect denying his own previous decision had rivals smelling blood.
“We now feel that we can force the prime minister to take back a policy if we oppose strong enough,” an opposition leader said.
His presumed weakness reverberated within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party as well. While Abe had been a strong advocate for changing the start of the school year to September, from the traditional April start, he was forced to drop the plan after opposition from within the LDP.
In his 1930 book “The Revolt of the Masses,” Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote, “If we observe the public life of the countries where the triumph of the masses has made most advance,” politically they are living from day to day.
The difficulty of balancing public opinion and what is right has always been a challenging task for politicians old and new. Sometimes an honest explanation can win the hearts of the people and lead to political support. There are worrying signs that the prime minister is taking note of social media a little too much. Aides say that Abe is increasingly talking about online posts that slam the opposition, and expressing his agreement.
On Wednesday, Abe had a one-hour meeting with Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso. “There is no need to panic,” Abe told Aso of the chain of bad events, “now is the time to persevere.”
With the parliament session coming to a close, Abe looks to resume his dinner meetings soon.