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Japan ruling party bigwig's dismissal of virus response criticism exposes power's arrogance

Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, right, appears at a Jan. 5, 2021 press conference at the party's headquarters in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. Executive Acting Secretary-General Seiko Noda can be seen on the left. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- "This is not a time for nitpicking over every little thing," said ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai during a Jan. 19 appearance on a TV program on public broadcaster NHK. He was being asked about the government's coronavirus pandemic response, and his forceful, combative tone quickly drew criticism online as "the powerful's arrogance."

    From the suspension of the "Go To Travel" tourism subsidy campaign to the declaration of a second state of emergency, the government's pandemic response has been dogged by criticism for lagging behind events. Approval ratings for the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga -- whom Nikai helped vault into power last September -- have soured in major news organizations' recent opinion polls, with those saying they oppose the government now outnumbering supporters.

    So what are we to make of a ruling party that, despite all of this, presents itself as having the authority to stifle any and all views that differ to or oppose its own?

    First, let us examine Nikai's comments made on the Jan. 19 edition of NHK's "Close-up Gendai Plus." The program aired one-on-one interviews with Nikai and Yukio Edano, head of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, in which each man was asked their views on how to handle the people's growing anxiety over the coronavirus pandemic, and the pros and cons of the coronavirus countermeasures taken thus far.

    A Jan. 13 NHK survey showed opposition outstripping support for the Suga administration 41% to 40% -- Suga's first time drifting into negative territory in the broadcaster's polling. During the Jan. 19 program, host Shinichi Taketa asked Nikai, "How are you taking the Japanese people's evaluation of the administration?"

    Nikai replied, "This is because people don't have any other outlet. Concerning the current situation. So where will they direct their anger? There would be no point in saying to some opposition party, 'This is your responsibility.'"

    Asked if the government's coronavirus policies had been sufficient, Nikai's expression darkened, and he said, "So, what could some other political party have done? What could a different politician have done? We're doing everything we can, aren't we? This is not a time to be nitpicking over every little thing."

    Crowds are seen in the main street of Tokyo's Ginza shopping district on Oct. 3, 2020, the first Saturday after the Japanese capital was added to the "Go To Travel" tourism subsidy campaign. (Mainichi/Naotsune Umemura)

    How are we to take these statements all together?

    "Most people in Japan think there's a problem with the government's policy and its timing, so there are good reasons behind the criticism," political analyst Atsuo Ito told the Mainichi Shimbun. Ito pointed out that Nikai's "political mentor," the late former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka (1918-1993), once said "it's a politician's job to be criticized."

    "I wonder what Mr. Nikai makes of those words now," Ito said.

    On Dec. 14 last year, the day Prime Minister Suga announced the Go To Travel campaign would be suspended due to spiking coronavirus cases, he joined a steakhouse dinner party in Tokyo attended by seven other people, including Nikai. One guest, political commentator Minoru Morita, said that "the gathering was a kind of end-of-year party for friends of Mr. Nikai."

    Ito pointed out that "Prime Minister Suga ended up in the line of fire, in terms of criticism, but Mr. Nikai was the one who threw the party. Even so, we didn't hear him utter a single word of regret. Nikai has been (LDP) secretary-general for years, since the previous administration (of Shinzo Abe). And we are beginning to see the harmful effects from him, as the strongest person in the LDP, concentrating so much power in his own hands. He is beginning to show a certain kind of arrogance."

    Political scientist Ikuo Gonoi, meanwhile, said of Nikai's comments on NHK, "He's taking a so-what attitude, and venting misplaced anger.

    "At the very least, we can call this winter's third wave of coronavirus infections a man-made disaster. Because they (the government) created the main cause of the renewed spread of infections by continuing the Go To Travel campaign. And Nikai isn't facing up to that fact, even though the public is criticizing this failed policy."

    Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, left, and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga attend a meeting of the party's executive committee on Nov. 30, 2020. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

    Gonoi also expressed worry over rising suicide numbers.

    "I think it's proper to broadly call these coronavirus-related deaths," he said. "Among these suicides, the number of women in vulnerable circumstances jumps out at you. It was the government that brought on this situation, and I think that it would be natural for them to give a few brief words of apology if they truly felt even a little bit responsible."

    Entertainer, commentator and self-appointed "Nikai-watcher" Petit Kashima had a different take, calling the Jan. 19 Close-up Gendai "a good show."

    "There are few chances for those of us who aren't reporters to hear Mr. Nikai's comments live," he said. "It was very interesting to be reminded that, 'Right, this is his way of life, this is how he thinks.'"

    Kashima took particular note of Nikai's use of the phrase, "doing everything we can," telling the Mainichi, "The problem was how he used the word 'everything.' Until just recently, the government was putting everything into the 'Go To Eat' campaign to promote dining out. But now that same government is scapegoating restaurants as the main factor behind the spread of coronavirus infections. In other words, they (ruling party politicians) suddenly repudiated a policy they had put everything into."

    The Suga administration is planning to table revised legislation to impose punishments on people who refuse hospitalization or inquiries by regional health centers in the coronavirus pandemic.

    "If the government is going to say that limits on personal rights are necessary to contain infections, then a calm and clear explanation of that to the people of Japan that leads to understanding is an absolute must," said Kashima. "And yet, no clear explanation has been offered. They're just putting everything into imposing penalties."

    On the government of the day brushing aside all differing or opposing opinion and charging off in its preferred direction, Kashima drew parallels with Japan's plunge into reckless war in the past.

    "Perhaps Mr. Nikai wishes to command us, to say, 'Do not criticize something we're putting everything into,' and that is frightening indeed."

    (Japanese original by Yukinao Kin, Integrated Digital News Center)

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