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FOCUS: “Sontaku” for Nikai seen behind Japan coronavirus policy delays

  • January 12, 2021
  • , Jiji Press , 6:24 p.m.
  • English Press
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Tokyo, Jan. 12 (Jiji Press)–There are persisting views that delays in Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s measures to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus are partly due to “sontaku,” or consideration, by him for ruling party heavyweight Toshihiro Nikai.


Although the government’s apparent reluctance to implement strong measures for stopping the movement of people to curb infections has been chiefly because of its concerns about the adverse effects on the economy, the presence of Nikai, secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party and a major backer of the Suga administration, is making the stance look like it is not purely based on policies.


Members of the LDP research commission on tourism, including Nikai and his right-hand man, LDP Acting Secretary-General Motoo Hayashi, met with some 30 tourism industry representatives on Thursday, the day the government decided to declare a fresh novel coronavirus state of emergency for the Tokyo metropolitan area.


They agreed that the government’s Go To Travel scheme, which has been halted nationwide due to concerns about tourists spreading the virus, should be resumed soon after the state of emergency is lifted. “Tourism is a key driver of the Japanese economy and a weapon to revitalize regional economies,” Hayashi told reporters after the meeting.


The scheme, in which the government supports hotels and other travel-related businesses struggling amid the epidemic and cut travel costs for tourists, has been a core policy for Suga since the program began in July last year, when he was chief cabinet secretary under the administration of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.


But Nikai’s strong support for the campaign is also seen to have been a major factor in realizing the policy as he is close to Suga and serves as head of the All Nippon Travel Agents Association.


Nikai’s influence over the Go To Travel policy was known clearly on Dec. 14, when a senior official in the LDP faction led by the party secretary-general lashed out at the government’s decision the same day to temporarily halt the scheme across the nation during the year-end and New Year’s holiday period although Suga notified Nikai of the decision through telephone beforehand on the day.


The official called the suspension a “selfish move,” apparently illustrating Nikai’s frustration over the suspension.


The same day, Suga was called to a year-end party attended by Nikai, Hayashi and five celebrities at a high-end steak restaurant in Tokyo’s posh Ginza district. Once this was reported by media organizations, the prime minister came under fire over the dinner, which flew in the face of the government’s request for people to avoid dining in large groups to curb the spread of the virus.


Suga told people around him that he had initially intended to only make a greeting and leave, but was asked to stay, which some see as proof of Nikai’s sway over the prime minister.


Nikai initially opposed the government declaring the new state of emergency over the epidemic, sources said.


Nikai reversed course to tolerate the fresh emergency plan on Jan. 2, after determining, based on the details of a request for a state of emergency by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and others, that its impact on the tourism industry would be limited, according to the sources.


Some in the ruling bloc speculate that Suga might have been hesitating to declare the state of emergency out of consideration for Nikai although the prime minister informed the Nikai side on Jan. 3 of his intention to study issuing the emergency declaration. Suga announced a plan to consider the declaration at a press conference the following day.


The Nikai side is expected to shortly request that the government resume the Go To Travel scheme after the fresh state of emergency is lifted, but questions remain over whether Suga can easily restart a policy that critics have blamed for the spread of the coronavirus.


A minister in the Suga cabinet said that the prime minister faces a difficult job of deciding whether to resume the program while examining the state of infections and public sentiment on one hand and assessing Nikai’s views on the other hand.


“It’s because of Nikai that we couldn’t suspend the Go To program (early),” the minister added.


The government put the travel discount campaign on hold nationwide on Dec. 28, after suspending its application for trips to Tokyo and some other cities earlier.


The nationwide suspension, which was initially slated to last until Monday this week, has been extended until Feb. 7, the final day of the fresh coronavirus state of emergency, covering Tokyo and the neighboring prefectures of Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa. The fresh state of emergency started Friday.

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