Japan PM Suga under fire for year-end dinners as coronavirus cases mount

Despite his own public warnings against large group meals, PM Yoshihide Suga went ahead with a series of get-togethers this week. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has drawn criticism for joining end of year social gatherings after imploring residents to avoid such parties as the country sees record numbers of coronavirus cases.

Despite his own public warnings against large group meals, Suga went ahead with a series of get-togethers this week, stirring up criticism from politicians and social media users, including his party's coalition partner.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the country's economy minister in charge of coronavirus policies, defended Suga's gatherings, telling Parliament on Wednesday (Dec 16) there was no enforced rule about group meals.

Late Tuesday, government spokesman Katsunobu Kato also said the Prime Minister had taken necessary precautions for the gatherings.

"It is important to make individual decisions, based on balancing between purposes of group meals and infection control measures," Kato told a regular press conference.

On Monday night, Suga joined six others including senior officials at the ruling party who gathered at a high-end steak restaurant in Tokyo's Ginza district. All of them are over 70s.

Leaving the restaurant, a 76-year-old actor Ryotaro Sugi told reporters it was a "year-end party", where they talked about baseball.

Another attendee, Toshihiro Nikai, the secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said the dinner guests took off masks to eat but were careful enough.

A day later, Suga met Haruyuki Takahashi, an executive of the Tokyo Games organising committee, and two executives from a local TV network at another steak restaurant, local media reported.

Takahashi played a key role in securing the support of a former Olympics powerbroker suspected by French prosecutors of taking bribes to help Japan's bid, Reuters has previously reported.

Suga's outings came after the government abruptly halted a government travel subsidy programme he had long defended, the latest wrangle to overshadow his first months in power.

The stumbles have raised questions about the longevity of Suga's tenure, government officials say, and could complicate his ability to implement difficult reforms.

"The Prime Minister's schedule has a message to the people, so I would like to see due consideration," said Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the ruling party's junior partner, Komeito.

Relations between the ruling party and Komeito have come under pressure following a showdown over medical bills for the elderly earlier this month.

"I think there's a growing chasm between the two groups compared to when the Suga cabinet kicked off," a source close to Komeito told Reuters, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

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