The Lasting Legacy of a Short-Term Prime Minister

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Japanese prime ministers have notoriously short lifespans – and often shorter legacies.

At first glance, Yoshihide Suga, who left office last October after just 384 days in office, might seem like another in a long list of flash-in-the-pan Japanese prime ministers.

But as the distance from his prime ministership grows and the pandemic that brought him down shifts to a new phase, Suga’s achievements are being increasingly recognized here. While his era has been overshadowed by the Olympics and Covid, his legacy is surprisingly formidable in a country where politics often moves at a glacial pace.

“I have no regrets,” Suga said during an interview on the 11th floor of the Diet Members Office Building. It is a short walk from the Prime Minister’s office which he occupied for most of 2021.

Perhaps because of his years as the face of Shinzo Abe’s administration, Suga never earned the reputation as a reformer he deserves. But as prime minister, he forced three of the country’s 10 largest listed companies to lower their prices; overrode ministry bureaucrats to commit Japan to an ambitious goal of carbon neutrality; creating a new agency to digitize Japan’s creaky bureaucracy; and overcame domestic and international opposition to stage the Olympics safely.

Recent legislation led by Suga, allowing expensive fertility treatments to be covered by public health insurance, has brought its relevance back to the fore. His tweet on the subject generated half a million likes, the most by a Japanese politician this year.

However, these accomplishments did not translate into public approval. It is ironic that his successor, Fumio Kishida, enjoys record ratings despite relatively limited legislative achievements, thanks in part to his tough stance on Ukraine.

One of Suga’s biggest accomplishments is what he didn’t do. Suga has avoided the Covid lockdowns that have become de rigueur in other countries, and despite initial opposition, time has favored his decision to focus on restricting infection sites such as bars and restaurants. restaurants, while allowing most economic activities to continue.

“Compared to the rest of the world, Japan’s response to Covid has been extremely successful,” Suga told me. Despite sometimes intense pressure from the media and the opposition to impose tougher measures, notably during the summer delta wave, he refused to accept a lockdown. The statistics confirm it: Japan remains one of the few countries with almost no excess mortality from Covid, has the lowest per capita death rate in the G-7 and will soon be the lowest of the 38 countries of the OECD.

Suga’s desks are littered with memorabilia from his career: a framed photo from the day his cabinet was formed; a cover of Newsweek, to which he offered a rare interview during a trip to the United States; a toy dog, representing his native Akita. The room is dominated by a scroll that reads “Reiwa”, the current imperial era. As Chief Cabinet Secretary in 2019, Suga announced the country’s name on live television, earning him the nickname “Uncle Reiwa”. The publicity elevated him to the list of potential Abe successors.

His chance came unexpectedly in August 2020 when Abe stepped down due to health issues. Coming into office with high public support, many expected Suga to be able to secure a long term in office. But Covid surged again in the winter, and as other nations returned to lockdown it initially resisted calls to impose another state of emergency. It would come to haunt him as the media slammed his response, but Suga remains unrepentant.

“The first state of emergency under the Abe administration was national and uniform, shutting down all forms of economic activity. GDP has fallen by around 30%, the most since the war,” he says. “I felt very strongly that we had to be careful. »

At the same time, he bets the house on vaccines. Without domestic production capacity, Japan has been slowed by the need to import vaccines as well as conduct domestic trials.

As the supply improved, Suga pushed for a “deliberately ambitious” target of 1 million shots a day, at a time when barely a quarter of that number was being administered. At its peak, the country was administering more than 1.6 million doses a day. His approach was vindicated as Covid deaths then fell to less than one a day.

Suga’s willingness to circumvent the status quo is a pattern seen throughout his career, which began in local politics in Yokohama, eventually becoming the first man to lead the Liberal Democratic Party without belonging to one of its powerful internal factions. One of its flagship policies was to go after the Japanese mobile phone giants, which had little real competition and big profit margins. Suga forced them to cut monthly fees, with new plans so lower they drove the country’s inflation numbers down for a year.

Earlier, Suga also overcame opposition to lead the Furusato Nozei (hometown tax) system – a rare popular tax scheme that allows people to pay part of their taxes to rural areas and get local treats. in return. The amount spent could reach 1 trillion yen ($7.7 billion) this year, Suga said. Suga also pledged Japan to become carbon neutral by 2050, the first Japanese leader to set such a timetable.

But perhaps nowhere has Suga’s willingness to fly in the face of opposition been seen more than at the Olympics.

After securing the Games in 2013, Abe postponed them when the pandemic hit. As the event approaches, public opposition grows. In January 2021, The Times of London reported that Japan had decided to cancel the Olympics, which Suga denies. In May, just weeks after the opening ceremony, the United States issued a “do not travel” advisory for Japan. Media around the world have warned of the potential for a superspreader event or an “Olympic variant”, while Suga says medical advisers have asked him to cancel the Games. “I refused them,” he said. “It is a decision that the government must make. »

In the end, only 33 of the 11,300 athletes tested positive. Far from being a super-broadcast event, the Olympic Village bubble where athletes were tested daily was perhaps the safest place in the country.

But although the public later approved of the Games, Suga himself did not receive any improvements. His lackluster press conference performance earned him few fans and he continued to get hammered in the papers, much to his frustration. As the vote for the next LDP leader approached, he shocked the nation by announcing he would not run, ending his term in power.

Under his more cautious successor, the nation is now debating reopening while battling yen weakness. Tourists are salivating at the thought and, unsurprisingly, Suga – also the political force behind the visa easing that led to Japan’s tourism boom – thinks the country should take bolder steps and open up faster . “We need big economic policies that take advantage of the weak yen. It means incoming tourists,” he says.

Former Japanese rulers don’t usually get second chances – and Suga doesn’t seem keen on trying. But there is talk in the local media of his forming a “study group” of like-minded lawmakers that could become one of the factions that dominate intra-party politics – and help decide future leaders. Suga declined to discuss the rumours, saying his next step would come after this summer’s election. But behind the scenes, it looks like he might not be done yet.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Japan’s subtle Covid policy is a lesson for China: Gearoid Reidy

• The yen collapses. And that’s fine: Bloomberg Opinion

• Graphics, “Catharsis” and crowd psychology: John Authers

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg News editor covering Japan. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia and was the deputy chief of the Tokyo bureau.

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