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Editorial: Japan PM Suga's repeated blunders amid crisis are not politics as 'expected'

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga seems to have no sense of crisis or urgency, as he blunders repeatedly during the new coronavirus's unabated spread across Japan.

    Not only was he late in deciding to temporarily and simultaneously suspend the government's "Go To Travel" tourism subsidy program across the country, but he has also faced criticism for his participation in a dinner party attended by around eight people including celebrities and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai.

    A government subcommittee of experts has been warning that eating or drinking in groups of five or more raises infection risks. Despite this, Suga sat for a dinner party during a period the government is describing as a "win or lose three weeks" in the battle against COVID-19.

    Many are also likely to have been stunned by Suga's decision to appear on an online program in which he introduced himself as "Gasu," a humorously-intended nickname achieved by flipping his surname's syllables.

    Though his turn on the show may have been done while conscious of its youthful audience, even young people are now demanding their leader adopt the speech of someone who takes the pandemic seriously.

    A public opinion poll conducted recently by the Mainichi Shimbun shows the Suga Cabinet approval rating plummeting to 40%, and his disapproval rating up to 49%. The results mark the first time the administration's proportion of supporters has been outstripped by that of those who disapprove of it. Additionally, the number of respondents saying the government should halt the Go To Travel campaign rose to 67%.

    The prime minister has led the subsidy campaign since his days as chief Cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration. Suga has touted his persistent attitude as one of his strengths, and it's undeniable that his decision to suspend the program was delayed by that persistency. It's likely that the main driver behind his decision to take the plunge and suspend the campaign, which he had been refusing to do until immediately before, is his frustration over the Cabinet's sudden drop in approval.

    In addition to the prime minister's frustration, it is concerning that there may not be anyone in the Cabinet or the LDP who can advise Suga.

    Regarding the dinner party and other issues, all it would have taken was for Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato or the prime minister's executive secretary to petition Suga to refrain from taking those actions. If figures like them can't speak up over fears for their positions, and the prime minister isn't willing to listen to them, then policy making, too, becomes a matter of greater concern.

    Three months have passed since the Suga Cabinet was assembled. Suga has repeatedly said he "will do what is expected by the citizens," but has yet to attend any out-of-session Diet discussions. It is extremely rare for him to hold a press conference and take the time to explain matters clearly to the Japanese people.

    That may also be the reason why Suga is failing to gauge public opinion, and why his occupation of the office lacks a sense of tension. At this rate, the people will find that even politics which fulfills "what is expected" becomes a distant dream.

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