Analysis

Suga’s Olympic-Sized Gamble

Backed by the G-7, Japan’s prime minister will likely go ahead with the games. How they play out will determine his survival.

By , the dean of the Faculty of Global Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga attends a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga attends a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo on June 17 after announcing the lifting of the pandemic-related state of emergency in Tokyo and several other regions on June 20, just over a month before the Olympics. ISSEI KATO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Japanese politicians are often driven to act by gaiatsu—the Japanese word for “external pressure”and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga got a welcome dose of it in Cornwall, England, last week when his fellow G-7 summiteers endorsed holding the Olympic Games in Tokyo next month.

The G-7’s backing helped offset the Japanese public’s negative reaction to the crude and offensive gaiatsu coming from International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials, who in recent weeks have arrogantly insisted that the games will go forward no matter whatnever mind the danger from COVID-19. The IOC statements embarrassed Suga and the government, making it seem as if the Japanese had no say in the matter, and only caused a backlash against the games.

So now it looks highly likely that Suga will go ahead with the games, which are scheduled to begin July 23. But if political tightrope walking were an Olympic sport, the prime minister would no doubt be competing in that eventbecause that’s exactly what Suga is facing at home in the coming months. And he won’t have a net to catch him if he falls. 

Japanese politicians are often driven to act by gaiatsu—the Japanese word for “external pressure”and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga got a welcome dose of it in Cornwall, England, last week when his fellow G-7 summiteers endorsed holding the Olympic Games in Tokyo next month.

The G-7’s backing helped offset the Japanese public’s negative reaction to the crude and offensive gaiatsu coming from International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials, who in recent weeks have arrogantly insisted that the games will go forward no matter whatnever mind the danger from COVID-19. The IOC statements embarrassed Suga and the government, making it seem as if the Japanese had no say in the matter, and only caused a backlash against the games.

So now it looks highly likely that Suga will go ahead with the games, which are scheduled to begin July 23. But if political tightrope walking were an Olympic sport, the prime minister would no doubt be competing in that eventbecause that’s exactly what Suga is facing at home in the coming months. And he won’t have a net to catch him if he falls. 

Arguably, the decision to cancel the Olympics was an impossible one for the Suga administration to make from the beginning. The IOC would likely lose trillions of yen in television advertising and other revenue that the Japanese government would be asked to pay in damages. But more than that, despite continuing public opposition to the games, for the Suga administration to cancel the Tokyo Olympics nowthe deadline for a decision is the end of Junewould only have a negative impact on its own survival.

There is a sense that Suga believes that if he takes various measures against COVID-19, successfully controls the infection, and hosts the Olympics, the public will support his administration. Once the Olympics are over, if he dissolves the House of Representatives and wins the general election, he would be reelected to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidency, and his position as prime minister would be secure. On the other hand, if the Olympic Games were to be canceled, Suga would be held responsible, and we would likely see a widespread movement within the LDP to bring the prime minister down.

Suga didn’t have a strong base of support to begin with, and his term as LDP president expires at the end of September, making his survival as prime minister tenuous at best. To begin with, Suga is a factionless prime minister. It is highly unusual for a member of the LDP who does not belong to a faction to be elected party president, but last year, in the face of a rivalry among different factions, and with no other leading candidates, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, and other influential figures in the major factions all endorsed Suga, who served as Abe’s chief cabinet secretary. Conversely, if each of these factions felt that Suga was unable to lead the party, they would pull him down. Thus, Suga’s only real chance at political viability now may be if the government can pull off a successful games that don’t result in a public health disaster. It is a gamble with enormous stakes both for Suga and the nation.

Until now, Suga has faced a mounting wave of opposition to his handling of the Olympics issue. Even more than the offensive remarks of IOC officials, polls show that the Japanese public is angry over what is perceived to be the government’s poor planning. There are several reasons for the strong public outcry: a lack of sufficient compensation to people and businesses in financial need due to the virus, the government’s failure to control it by expanding testing, and a delay in administering vaccines. A survey of 9,163 Japanese companies conducted in early June by Tokyo Shoko Research found that 64 percent would prefer that the Olympics be canceled or postponed, up from 55.9 percent in February. The Japan Federation of Medical Workers’ Unions has also called for a cancellation or postponement, saying in a statement that the “collapse of medical care” has become a “reality.”

Public opinion about the Olympics was initially extremely opposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, more conspicuously, the very insensitive and highhanded remarks of the IOC. However, as infection rates fall, a kind of resigned mood is spreading. This is reflected in recent public opinion polls, which seem to indicate that the number of those in favor of the event is increasing. For example, a new poll by NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting station, shows increasing support for holding the Olympics among Japanese voters, with 64 percent now saying the games should be held versus 31 percent who believe they should be canceled. Whether to push ahead with the games is also becoming a wedge issue between liberals and conservatives. Supporters of the LDP argue for holding the Olympics, while supporters of the more liberal opposition parties tend to be negative. Suga’s political rivals suspect he’s now going ahead with the games only to enhance his prospects for staying in office. 

More good news for the Suga administration is that things on the ground are finally looking up. Infection rates are decreasing, and several regions, including Tokyo, have already moved to less stringent priority measures after the lifting of the coronavirus-related state of emergency on June 20. The government has finally been able to open major facilities where vaccinations are available. On Monday, Japan’s Olympic organizers announced a cap on the number of spectators at 10,000 people or 50 percent of a venue’s capacity, whichever is smaller. Last week, Olympics Minister Tamayo Marukawa, calling the support from G-7 leaders “reassuring,” said an additional 20,000 Pfizer vaccine doses would be offered to everyone involved with the games as soon as possible. “We will continue working on thorough COVID countermeasures until the last minute,” she said. 

The state of emergency that ended in Tokyo and other major cities on Sunday had been in place since April 25. It was the second time this year alone that a state of emergency had been declared, the previous being from Jan. 8 to March 21. There has been only about one month without a state of emergency this year, and for Japanese it has already become the new normal.

Why were vaccines not administered sooner? There is a host of reasons, but if the Olympics turn into a public health disaster, Suga will get the blame for all of them. As in Taiwan and South Korea, the number of infected people in Japan is not as large as in Europe and the United States, so the vaccine supply has been delayed from pharmaceutical companies mostly based in the United States and Europe. In the case of Japan, even after its COVID-19 vaccine supply was secured, the government took a lot of time and effort to authorize the vaccines for domestic use and prepare the rollout. It was not until mid-February that the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare approved the Pfizer vaccine, the first for domestic use. At that time, many vaccinations were already underway in the United States. The ministry contends that it took time to confirm the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. In addition, it wasn’t until May 21 that it formally approved the new coronavirus vaccines from Moderna and AstraZeneca. 

Japan is also working on the development of mRNA vaccines, but the budget for research support from the government is not sufficient, critics say, and it is taking a long time to complete the project.

The pace of vaccination in Japan is getting faster by the day. The faster the pace of vaccination in Japan, the more likely it will be that the Olympics will be held successfully. If Suga succeeds in holding the Olympics, he may have enough support to dissolve the House of Representatives, win the general election—and survive in office. The very survival of his administration depends on whether enough people are vaccinated in time.

Kazuhiro Maeshima is the dean of the Faculty of Global Studies at Sophia University  in Tokyo, Japan.

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