BY SATOSHI SUGIYAMA, STAFF WRITER
Just as the nation was scrambling to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in late February and early outbreaks elsewhere, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was battling his own crisis: overcoming criticism over a perceived lack of leadership.
Fast forward almost six months as the country documents even more cases of COVID-19 — routinely shattering daily records for the number of new infections — and he is facing similar criticism, being panned for his reluctance to hold official news conferences and convene an extraordinary Diet session to discuss the government’s responses to the pandemic.
Although circumstances are different now, compared to the early phases of the crisis, critics are questioning Abe’s accountability over his administration’s policies that aimed at keeping new infections low while boosting the economy, including the last-minute change to the Go To Travel domestic tourism promotion campaign.
“In one sentence, the government’s supposed unstated position — often referred to as ‘with coronavirus’ — is that the authorities will provide the health care, medicine and vaccines, but if you get infected that’s on you,” said Takashi Ryuzaki, a political science professor at Ryutsu Keizai University in Ibaraki Prefecture. “If Abe was grilled in the Diet or at a news conference, there’s a risk that the government’s unstated, self-responsibility position would become public knowledge, revealing his primary concern to be the economy.”
After criticism earlier in the year, Abe held news conferences on the coronavirus nine times, justifying the necessity of declaring a state of emergency and highlighting his administration’s economic and medical novel coronavirus rescue plans.
Diet affairs chiefs from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan agreed Wednesday to continue holding weekly debates at the committee level while the Diet is closed. The opposition camp also demanded attendance not just by Cabinet ministers but also by Abe, with him facing questions, to which the ruling coalition has yet to agree.
“This ongoing coronavirus crisis is not something that can be overcome by leaving the matter to others or relevant Cabinet ministers,” said Jun Azumi, the CDP Diet affairs chief. “It’s incomprehensible as to why a country’s leader doesn’t provide an explanation to the people, including (opposition parties) at the Diet.”
Calls for Abe to show stronger leadership have also grown louder as Japan has witnessed a rapid rise in its number of cases, in a situation some have described as being part of a “second wave” of the epidemic.
Since the government lifted its state of emergency over the virus, the number of new cases has been on an upward trajectory — rising even more rapidly than the first wave of cases between late March and early May. In major metropolises such as Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka, it has become normal for the number of new cases to break records on an almost daily basis.
Government officials say the surge can be attributed to increased testing capacity, and have stressed that the death toll and the number of patients in a serious condition have fallen compared to earlier this year.
Critics, though, blame the government for increasing transmission of the virus within communities, saying it was facilitated by the hasty decision to reopen the economy and implement the Go To Travel campaign — which encouraged travel from areas where the virus was rampant to places less severely hit.
The prime minister is expected to hold a news conference Thursday in Hiroshima, during his visit to commemorate the 75th-year anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city.
And Abe took a few minutes to speak to the press Tuesday at the Prime Minister’s Office, where he took aim at criticism that his leadership had been lacking, saying Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura were giving daily briefings on the government’s coronavirus measures. On convening an extraordinary session, the prime minister dismissed any idea of doing so immediately.
A JNN poll released Monday showed the Cabinet’s disapproval rating, of 62.2 percent, was almost twice the approval rating, of 35.4 percent. The proportion supporting the government’s handling of the virus crisis has dropped by 20 points to 26 percent since July. Those who disapprove rose to 61 percent, a 17-point jump.
“In the case of a pandemic, in which solutions are not simple, many citizens feel anxious,” said Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor of political science at Waseda University. “That’s why there’s the necessity to present Japan’s own accurate scientific data and explain scientifically about the domestic situation to the public. … I imagine everyone is eager to hear how the government will accomplish the objectives of supporting economic activities while doing all it can on testing, quarantine and contract-tracing.”