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Opinion

Japan's Fredo Corleone moment is not very cinematic

Suga's son breaks bad as wannabe Instagram influencer

| Japan
Yoshihide Suga, pictured on Jan. 18: now, the prime minister is in damage-control mode.   © AP

William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades."

Here is the real question to ask about a scandal involving Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's son lavishing $700 per-head dinners on Tokyo bureaucrats: where, oh where, did the last 23 years go?

The last time, arguably, such an amateurish influence campaign made these kinds of headlines was in 1998. That was back when Japan Inc's bad-loan crisis and deflation were really getting going. The bribery controversy saw Ministry of Finance staffers in handcuffs. And it came right in the middle of two events with which Tokyo is still grappling.

The first is the 1997 collapse of 100-year-old Yamaichi Securities, one of Japan's fabled big-four brokerages. The second: the Bank of Japan's fateful 1999 decision to cut interest rates to zero, setting the stage for today's negative borrowing-cost headaches.

These bookmarks still dominate machinations at the MOF and BOJ today. The humiliation of the first event turned bureaucrats more risk-averse than ever, setting the stage for years of financial bailouts. The second paved the way for the quantitative easing adventures to come, breeding complacency that allowed China's economy to squeak by.

It is no coincidence that BOJ Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda's 1997-1999 tenure as the MOF's top international official spanned this period. For better or worse, it formed his own views of where Japan's financial cracks lie. And equally important, how much stress the system, in his mind, can withstand.

Many of these cracks are hard for the public to see. Until someone like Seigo Suga bumbles along like some Fredo Corleone, reminding us why Tokyo has not fully extricated itself from the 1998 era.

Fredo Corleone, acted by John Cazale, and his wife Deanna, acted by Marianna Hill, in a publicity still of the film "The Godfather Part II", 1974.   © CBS/Getty Images

Suga's son, an employee at satellite broadcaster Tohokushinsha Film, wining-and-dining at least 13 bureaucrats is being compared to Hunter Biden. Yet allegations against U.S. President Joe Biden's son are hype. Seigo Suga paying for 21 outings with public officials regulating his company -- and not remembering recording devices exist -- puts him more in league with Don Corleone's dimwitted son from The Godfather.

Only for Japan's 126 million people, this tale is both business and personal. It is a painful reminder of how little the Liberal Democratic Party has learned since 1998. Prime Minister Suga's impulse at first was to shrug off his son's Fredo-like blunder. The reaction connects awkwardly to his looking the other way on the Yoshiro Mori scandal. Only the angry chorus demanding that Olympics planning committee head Mori resign over sexist comments forced Suga's hand.

But what will force the LDP's hand as its wax museum leadership structure once again seems unequal to the challenges of the moment? Count the ways Suga is dropping the ball.

The deflation Kuroda's BOJ tried to defeat has a better chance of running through Tokyo in 2021 than do Olympic athletes unable to over COVID-19 risks. As new variants thrive and Tokyo's vaccine program disappoints, public opinion is strongly on the side of scrapping the Summer Games set to start in July.

Suga, meantime, has gotten zero done, essentially, since grabbing the baton from Shinzo Abe in September. Political wags are in a whirl about how Suga's son lavishing meals on communications ministry staffers imperils his dad's agenda. Uh, what agenda?

To be sure, the conflicts of interest Suga's son created with his nightlife activities complicated things for the prime minister. Nowadays, a millennial like Seigo Suga, 39, would use Instagram to fulfill his desire to be an influencer. Instead, he did it old-school, 1998-style, by dropping wads of cash on food and booze.

But the prime minister was well on his way to mediocrity before Suga Jr. stumbled along. On top of implementing reforms that predecessor Shinzo Abe punted forward, Suga promised to make the government more efficient and reduce some of the globe's highest mobile phone rates.

Yet, the prime minister's approval ratings are in the 30s because he slow-walked structural upgrades and prioritized the Olympics over public health.

Suga did himself no favors standing by Mori, making a mockery of the LDP's supposed efforts to empower women. He did himself no favors by dragging his feet on declaring COVID-19 emergencies or improving Japan's testing capabilities. Nor is Suga's spin that the economy is set for a solid 2021 working its magic amid stagnant wages.

It will all seem very familiar to anyone watching the LDP's maneuvers these last 23 years, ricocheting from scandal to scandal, from forgettable leader to leader. Or, even the remarkable ones. Officially, Abe resigned for health reasons. Observers did not miss that a number of scandals were closing in on Japan's longest-serving leader.

Now, Suga, too, is in damage-control mode as an October election draws closer. Suga, it seems safe to say, will be too busy saving his job to actually do it. Too busy to revitalize an economy still suffering from the trauma of the late 1990s. Too busy to devise the aggressive COVID-19 testing and vaccination protocol that Japan's aging population deserves.

Does anyone really see a governing agenda here, scandal or not? Perhaps Japan's Fredo will take me to dinner and explain. Do not worry. I, unlike all too many Tokyo bureaucrats, will pay my half of the bill.

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