It has been half a year since Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga took office and launched his Cabinet — a milestone marked amid a firestorm over top communications ministry officials accepting pricey entertainment from private interests.
Suga came into office buoyed by his image as a self-made man, and his kick-off policies that focused on practical benefits — including one on driving down mobile phone charges — likely raised hopes for the newly inaugurated administration.
Opinion polls at the time of the Suga Cabinet’s launch in September last year showed that it was enjoying a relatively high support rate compared to its predecessors.
It was a short honeymoon. The Suga Cabinet’s poll numbers went into decline, and he was soon mired in political trouble.
Because, we believe, Suga has been running his administration in a manner divorced from the “common-sense politics” he has made his calling card.
For one, his government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, the most important issue of the day, has fallen consistently behind events. Suga has heretofore plainly put economic recovery above all other priorities, as demonstrated by the way he pushed the “Go To” tourism and restaurant subsidy campaigns. As a result, the government failed to slow the renewed spread of the virus, and Tokyo and several other prefectures were put under a second state of emergency in January.
Suga has also proven to be an ineffective public communicator, unable to solve challenges of getting his messages to the Japanese people.
Adding insult to injury, in December the prime minister went to a star-studded dinner party at a steakhouse in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district, with ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai — despite the government’s own expert committee on coronavirus measures calling on people to avoid dining out in groups of five or more. The resulting backlash was entirely merited.
One issue which we cannot be allowed to forget is the Suga administration’s handling of Science Council of Japan appointments. The council recommends new members to the prime minister, who then appoints them. However, last year Prime Minister Suga rejected six scholars on the nomination list, and he has yet to reveal why.
The six rejected scholars had all been critical of LDP-led government amendments to Japan’s security-related laws or some other piece of policy. We suspect that the Suga government used its appointment powers to shut down opposing opinion, and that it is using the technique to stifle criticism throughout Japan’s academic community.
Responding to such suspicions, Suga was confrontational, saying, “There are things I can explain, and things I can’t.” But administrative bodies should not be allowed to carry out actions they cannot explain to the public. Accountability is the foundation of democratic politics.
We must also say that a series of high-priced dining paid for by private firms offered to top communications ministry figures was anything but “common sense.” The scandal has shed light not only on cozy ties between bureaucrats and private businesses, but we are starting to see a relationship of mutual back-scratching among politicians, civil servants and companies. The situation is dire indeed.
It will not be easy for Suga and his Cabinet to recover pubic trust. First and foremost, the prime minister must reconsider what “common-sense politics” means. And then he must humbly turn his attention to what is now making the Japanese people angry and distrustful of his government.