A look back at outgoing Japan PM Yoshihide Suga's year in office

Mr Yoshihide Suga announced on Sept 3 that he will not stand for re-election as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party.
Mr Yoshihide Suga announced on Sept 3 that he will not stand for re-election as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - Mr Yoshihide Suga's tenure as the 99th Prime Minister of Japan will soon come to an end, following his shock decision on Friday (Sept 3) not to stand for re-election as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party.

The Straits Times looks back at the ups and downs of Mr Suga's time as premier, since he took office on Sept 16 last year.

Achievements

Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games

Despite public unease, Mr Suga forged ahead with holding the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games from July 23 to Aug 8, and the Paralympic Games from Aug 24 to Sept 5.

The largest-scale event of the Covid-19 era brought delegations from around the world together in a massive triumph against adversity, and the event was held in a "bubble", with spectators banned from sports arenas.

Public anxiety over the Games soon dissipated, according to media surveys and social media polls, with the Japanese public likely inspired by the sporting feats and bowled over by the country's gold medal rush.

Climate targets

While Japan has long been seen as a laggard in its environmental goals and lambasted for its addiction to coal, Mr Suga had on Oct 26, 2020, made a pledge that Japan will achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050.

This came on the back of climate pledges by the United States and China.

He would later raise the stakes by setting more ambitious 2030 targets to slash carbon emissions by at least 46 per cent - with 50 per cent being the ideal - from 2013 levels.

Mr Suga's government also went a step further to fight the scourge of single-use plastic waste by passing laws mandating that retailers impose a charge on plastic cutlery and straws starting April next year. This follows a charge on plastic bags that has been levied since July last year.

Digital Agency 

The Digital Agency, a brainchild of Mr Suga's to streamline and modernise the antiquated paper-heavy administrative processes, started work on Sept 1.

With 600 staff, of whom about a third are from the private sector, the agency will serve as the hub for whole-of-government digital services and will prioritise the roll-out of digital Covid-19 vaccination certificates and the standardisation of systems nationwide by fiscal year 2025 under a project called GovCloud.

Separately, as part of his reform agenda, Mr Suga also scored a domestic win by pushing through a plan to lower mobile fees.

Diplomacy

There were plenty of question marks over Mr Suga's diplomatic acumen, as his former portfolios - including as Chief Cabinet Secretary - were largely domestic in nature.

But Mr Suga acquitted himself well by becoming the first foreign leader to meet US President Joe Biden at the White House on April 16, in a summit that has important ramifications on their Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative. The two leaders openly cited the Taiwan Strait in their joint statement.


US President Joe Biden (left) holds a joint news conference with Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Washington on April 16, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Suga was also the driving force behind Japan's vaccine diplomacy drive, hosting the Covax Advance Market Commitment summit that drew pledges of about US$2.4 billion (S$3.2 billion) and 54 million doses of vaccines from 40 world and business leaders.

Question marks

Covid-19 strategy

Only time will tell whether Mr Suga's strategy to rein in Covid-19 infections will be seen in a positive light in future. But a public that has been sickened by repeated emergency and quasi-emergency declarations has largely not given Mr Suga credit.

Even the government's top Covid-19 adviser, Dr Shigeru Omi, a former World Health Organisation official, has criticised politicians for being baselessly optimistic in Covid-19 calculations. It is already September and Tokyo, the bustling capital of 14 million, has seen only four weeks not under a Covid-19 declaration this year.

The public has also criticised Mr Suga's insistence on going ahead with the Olympics when so many other events and milestones, including coming-of-age and graduation ceremonies and summer fireworks and music festivals, had been scrapped. And while many eventually came round to holding the Olympics, Mr Suga has been seen as a poor communicator of his thoughts and ideas.


The opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 23, 2021. 
PHOTO: REUTERS

He was lambasted for being reactive in his policies, such as by initially ignoring public anxieties over the Go To Travel domestic travel subsidy programme that has been blamed for catalysing Japan's third wave of infections late last year.

Mr Suga has also been slammed for a hospitalisation policy enacted last month to admit only the sickest Covid-19 patients, with dozens dying at home without prompt medical attention amid questions as to why the government has not acted sooner despite the pandemic having raged on since February last year.

On the other hand, Mr Suga must be given credit for pushing ahead with vaccinations even when the going got tough. He made a personal pitch twice to Pfizer chief executive officer Albert Bourla for vaccine deliveries to be sped up.

He insisted on a target of one million doses a day, even in the face of questions about whether this was feasible.

Vaccination minister Taro Kono had also cast doubt on the target and said 800,000 doses a day would be more realistic, but was told by Mr Suga to press on.

As a result, Japan's vaccination programme has progressed at remarkable speed despite having a relatively late start in February. As at Friday, nearly 90 per cent of Japanese seniors had been fully immunised, along with nearly half of the general public.



People queue to get vaccinated at a vaccination centre in Tokyo on Aug 2, 2021. 
PHOTO: REUTERS

Mental health

With suicides on the rise amid Japan's prolonged Covid-19 fight, Mr Suga in February created a new Cabinet position to address mental health issues.

As "Minister of Loneliness", Mr Tetsushi Sakamoto, 70, was tasked with coming up with suicide countermeasures. But he has faded away under little media attention and without making policy announcements since he first came into the spotlight.

Childcare

Mr Suga has focused on salvaging Japan's plunging birthrate with a series of measures, including promoting a law - passed in June - to give fathers more flexibility when taking paternity leave. The government wants to lift the ratio of men who take paternity leave to 30 per cent in 2025, from 7.5 per cent in 2019.

Mr Suga has also embarked on a fertility push by promoting fertility treatment support, which is often costly and can add up to millions of yen over several years.

This is necessary as more women are now in the workforce, giving birth later. With new laws passed under Mr Suga's watch, fertility treatment will be covered by public health insurance from next year.

While these moves are positive steps, they are hardly enough to put a stop to plummeting birth rates.

Scandals

Science Council of Japan

In October last year, Mr Suga upset Japan's academia with his unprecedented refusal to appoint six nominated scholars to the Science Council of Japan.

This has long been a rubber-stamp process - former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone termed the procedure a "mere formality".

But observers were quick to point out that all six scholars had previously been critical of policies championed by Mr Suga's predecessor, Mr Shinzo Abe.

The move was seen as a high-handed, vindictive act, with even Nobel laureate for physics Toshihide Masukawa criticising Mr Suga's intervention as an act that "destroys democracy and constitutionalism (and) is an insult to academia".

Despite public calls for transparency over their exclusion, Mr Suga has not provided a clear answer, though he has insisted that their rejections had nothing to do with their political beliefs, while adding that it was necessary to secure a "comprehensive and bird's-eye view of the council's activities".

Tohokushinsha

A wine-and-dine scandal swirled around Mr Suga in March after his eldest son Seigo - who was working in a telecommunications company - was found to have gone on a charm offensive to woo senior bureaucrats from the Communications Ministry.

The scandal claimed Mr Suga's public relations secretary Makiko Yamada, despite his attempts to shield her from public recrimination.

Satellite broadcasting firm Tohokushinsha was found to have wined and dined senior communications ministry bureaucrats a total of 39 times between July 2016 and December 2020.

Mr Seigo Suga, who was chief of hobby and entertainment community operations, attended 21 of these sessions and treated Ms Yamada to a 74,000 yen (S$905) meal.