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Interview

Abe's right-hand man wants a Japan less reliant on China

Chief cabinet secretary sees pandemic exposing limits of sectionalized bureaucracy

Yoshihide Suga is a leading candidate to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.(Photo by Kaori Yuzawa)

TOKYO -- The coronavirus pandemic has taught Japan a crucial lesson on the perils of relying too much on China for key supplies from masks to car parts, says Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

That is why the country earmarked more than 240 billion yen ($2.2 billion) in an emergency economic package this month to assist domestic companies in moving production back home or diversifying production bases into Southeast Asia.

The move has raised eyebrows in Beijing, which had been hoping for renewed ties with Japan on the occasion of President Xi Jinping's maiden visit, which was scheduled for this month but been postponed.

But extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and Suga said it was an "important lesson for crisis management."

Speaking of crisis response, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trusted deputy said the bureaucratic walls separating various Japanese ministries were standing in the way of the coordination necessary for containing the virus’ spread.

Suga has served as the top government spokesman since December 2012, when Abe returned to power in that month’s general election. Suga’s unveiling of Reiwa, the name for the era under the new emperor that began in May, went viral on the internet. He is seen as one of the leading candidates to succeed Abe, whose term as the president of the Liberal Democratic Party ends in September 2021.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: Did the government anticipate an infectious disease crisis like this coronavirus pandemic?

A: I don't think any country did. Some believe this is the worst crisis since World War II. The movement of people and goods has come to a complete halt. Then there is fear. This is our first experience with a disease for which there is no known cure. 

First and foremost, we are absolutely determined to prevent an explosive surge in caseloads like those in the U.S. and Europe, and protect the lives and health of the Japanese people. We're doing everything we can to bring the epidemic under control as quickly as possible. After that, we will try to achieve a V-shaped economic recovery. The top priority is to get through this with the determination not to let a single company go under. 

Q: Now that the cross-border movement of people has been drastically reduced, are you worried that insular thinking will take hold?

A: Human movement has temporarily come to an absolute standstill. But for our economy to grow going forward, tapping growth engines abroad is essential.

In the case of surgical masks, for instance, 70% to 80% of what we have here are made in China. Even with factories in Japan running at full throttle, we still had a mask shortage. When China's economy shut down, a Japanese automaker was unable to procure parts and had to let a plant sit idle. We need to end heavy reliance on a single country for a particular product or material. For things that are essential to our everyday life, we need to bring production back to Japan or diversify the location of such manufacturing over several countries. This is an important lesson for crisis management.

Q: Did the crisis highlight what was missing in the governing structure?

A: What's important for a government comes down to emergency management. An overwhelming majority of bureaucrats in Tokyo are extremely capable, but their weakness is sectionalism. We cannot manage a crisis unless we work as a whole, with all hands on deck. The coronavirus cannot be handled by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare alone. We need to get other ministries and agencies involved, from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism to the Self-Defense Forces and the Japan Coast Guard. We need to do this so that we can all take action together at once.

Responding to the outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship required careful handling of a complex situation. The vessel was registered in the U.K., operated by an American company, led by an Italian captain, and had crew members and passengers from 56 countries and regions. Once the crisis has passed, we need to reassess our response from various aspects. 

Q: In this globalized world, we face the risk of more infectious diseases being brought into Japan from abroad, not just from China.

A: What the Japanese government needs to do is learn from the lessons and knowledge gained by other countries and respond swiftly. China experienced a hard hit. To bring the outbreak under control, we need to step up international collaboration, including China.

The planned visit by Chinese leader Xi Jinping serves as a significant opportunity to show to people at home and the world that Japan and China are fulfilling our responsibilities as the world's second- and third-largest economies. Maintaining a relationship that allows us to exchange candid opinions is extremely significant for the economic development and security in Asia and beyond.

Q: What will post-coronavirus Japan look like?

Japan has the potential to succeed on the international stage in many ways. Big corporations and smaller businesses alike are full of hardworking people, but these human resources are not utilized well. The focus has been on their own organizations and companies, without looking for opportunities outside. We need a framework that unlocks the full potential of talent.

The principle is for individuals to do what they can first. Then people can help each other in local communities. If the problem still remains unsolved, then the national government will step in. We need to create a government that is trusted by the people in getting things done.

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