By William Pesek
William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.”
Japanese prime ministers tend not to last long after the nation hosts the Olympics.
Within five months of hosting the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, Ryutaro Hashimoto was stepping down. Nearly five months after the 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo, Eisaku Sato bowed out.
In 1964, Hayato Ikeda’s government was done much quicker. The prime minister resigned one day after the closing ceremony, despite that event’s still-fabled place in the modern-day Japanese psyche. And more recently, it is worth noting, Shinzo Abe was gone last September, a month after Tokyo 2020 was originally scheduled to end.
Situations vary, of course. Hashimoto’s party had just suffered a crushing election defeat. Sato seemed to have lingered too long. Ikeda and Abe both resigned for health reasons. But this tantalizing Olympics jinx is about to shroud Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga two months before he must call a general election.
Were it not for the complete disarray of Japan’s opposition, Suga and his Liberal Democratic Party would almost certainly be the fourth post-Games political casualty.
With approval ratings in the low 30s, a flatlining economy, a fourth COVID-19 wave exacerbated by hordes of Olympics visitors and a modest vaccination rate, what can Suga campaign on? Mediocrity as a virtue?
This is not the election campaign Suga had hoped to run. When he took power in September, the plan was to nurture Japan’s economic recovery from the pandemic, put some notable reforms on the scoreboard and ensure Tokyo 2020 came off without a hitch, cheering the nation.
None of these has panned out. While last year’s deep recession has eased, the delta variant is racing ahead of vaccinations — even after Suga’s team stepped up the pace in recent months. Any upgrades Suga might claim to have implemented won little news coverage. And Tokyo 2020 has too often been upstaged by drama and scandal off the field.
Though Suga’s team claims the COVID bubble in Tokyo is holding up, we are four to six weeks away from knowing. Will Japanese taxpayers end up having spent up to $30 billion on a superspreader event? All we can do is stay tuned.
As of now, the odds are with the LDP. Yet maintaining power come October will not be a victory for Suga’s party so much as retaining power by forfeit. As best I can tell, the main objective of Japan’s opposition parties is to change their names. The main one is, for now, called the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. But if the opposition really does have a different vision for voters, it might want to get the news out. Soon, actually.
The upshot of another Suga-LDP term, though, might be a mandate so fragile as to leave Tokyo even more gridlocked — and change-averse.
Suga secured power 324 days ago to ensure continuity from Abe’s nearly eight years in power. Abe, remember, had three assets no Japanese leader ever had before: high approval rates in the early years, majorities in both houses of the Diet and plenty of time in power to get big things done.
Unfortunately, the big bang reforms Abe promised to regain momentum in the era of Chinese dominance have been, at best, scattered pops. Suga may have extended the Abe years, but he has done little to push upgrades like cutting bureaucracy, loosening labor markets or rekindling innovation in the direction of the finish line.
Now, as Suga’s government pivots to Taiwan, it is hard not to worry that there is no real domestic agenda. Even Abe has stepped back into the spotlight to join the growing chorus of Tokyo bigwigs voicing support for the democratic island. Is he angling for an Abe 3.0 government, sensing Suga is not up to the challenge? Or does the LDP figure whipping up China intrigue is the way to distract from its domestic failures?
Granted, the focus on Taiwan is a righteous one. As East Asia’s biggest democracy, Japan has every reason to push back on President Xi Jinping’s increased military activities — and fiery rhetoric — in the Taiwan Strait and his crackdown on Hong Kong. Tensions are on full display as Chinese social media throws a tantrum over Taiwanese athletes beating mainlanders at the Olympics.
By now, though, the LDP ought to know that real strength begins at home with a vibrant economy. Putting more naval vessels in the South China Sea matters less than Japan Inc. wowing the globe with new technologies and game-changing unicorns. Look no further than President Joe Biden in Washington, who is investing hundreds of billions of dollars to build economic muscle at home to beat China the 21st-century way.
Along with taming COVID, Suga must act fast to articulate a clear plan for the next two or three years. He must show how Tokyo will use the time wisely to increase innovation and productivity, make government ministries more meritocratic, narrow the gender pay gap and plot a renewable energy revolution that creates millions of high-paying jobs. And how the LDP will address, finally, the socioeconomic question of how a shrinking population can service a rising national debt.
Talk of Suga’s post-Tokyo 2020 prospects is a fascinating mind experiment. But a fragile LDP mandate at a moment of maximum economic peril is a curse of Olympic proportions all its own.