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Opinion

Why Suga's 2021 has already gone off the rails

Collapse in support for Japan's Prime Minister has been as abrupt as it is deserved

| Japan
Yoshihide Suga attends a news conference on Jan. 7. His basic message: the economy is still my priority.   © Reuters

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

Yoshihide Suga might just be the only world leader who actually misses 2020.

That was back when Japan was a COVID-19 exemplar, when massive stimulus seemed to be reviving the economy, when the prime minister's approval was in the mid-60s, and when it was still possible to blame predecessor Shinzo Abe for Tokyo's travails. Good times.

The new year is starting off with a new wave of virus infections, another state of emergency, deflationary forces intensifying, a Tokyo Olympics on life support and Suga's support hovering around 40%, at best.

Less than four months on the job, Suga's support numbers are already in the danger-zone for Japanese leaders. Though Abe spent nearly eight years in power, the previous six governments lasted only about one year. If Suga does not get busy leading, Tokyo's revolving political door will spit him out, too.

This is not where Suga, or his Liberal Democratic Party wanted to be 10 months out from the deadline for Japan's next election. Suga never expected much of a honeymoon -- not with a pandemic savaging Asian growth. But the about-face in faith in his leadership has been as abrupt as it is deserved.

Take the state of emergency "lite" Suga announced Jan. 7. It had been obvious for weeks that Japan was paying a price for complacency. Despite record spikes in COVID-19 cases, Suga rolled out a number of unoriginal half measures. Mostly, please do not eat out or drink at bars too late. The basic message: the economy is still my priority.

Commuters walk out from Tokyo Station's Marunouchi north exit on Jan. 8: Japan is paying a price for complacency.   © Kyodo

Except for when it is not. Just 117 days in, Suga's big talk of putting quick reform wins on the board has gone quiet. Early plans to accelerate Abenomics implementation, cut bureaucracy, reduce mobile phone fees, shake up energy policy and modernize regional banks are all but vanishing. Can Suga turn things around? I am highly doubtful, frankly.

Few expected the man who served as Abe's enforcer -- his chief cabinet secretary -- for nearly eight years would be a burst of fresh thinking and energy. There was hope, though, that Suga's technocratic skills could get some big things done.

If Suga is to salvage his premiership -- an Olympic stadium-sized if -- he must regain the reformist momentum, and now. That means a bold pivot to loosening labor markets, cultivating a vibrant startup scene, empowering women, cajoling large companies to share profits with employees, and putting out the welcome mat to foreign talent.

Suga should angle to be Joe Biden's partner in Asia. Not his errand boy, as Abe was to Donald Trump, but the incoming U.S. President's true collaborator in a region in unprecedented flux.

Any history of the 2012-2020 Abe era must question why Japan's longest-serving leader thought it wise to be Trump's only ally among democratic leaders. And to stand by, meekly, as Trump's trade wars, weird bromance with Kim Jong Un, COVID-19 incompetence and retrograde environmental policies made Japan's 2021 that much more difficult.

If Suga decides to lead, he can start by lobbying Biden's America to scrap taxes on Asian goods and supply chains and rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership and grow its ranks. For all his anti-China histrionics, Trump made Xi Jinping's geopolitical ambitions great again.

So, frankly, did Abe's 2,821 days in office. Though Abe strengthened corporate governance a tad, he generally worked with the 1985 tool kit: massive monetary easing; a weaker yen; public works spending; prioritizing nuclear power.

China, meanwhile, invested trillions on where Asia might be in 2025. President Xi's clampdown on Hong Kong, land grabs in the South China Sea, the disappearing of Alibaba's Jack Ma are all worthy of contempt. But Xi is quite the multitasker. Beijing also is working to write the future of artificial intelligence, automation, biotechnology, digital currencies, renewable energy, robots, self-driving vehicles, semiconductors, software, you name it.

Rather than view Abe's 1985 fixation as an inspiration, Suga's team must plot a course for where Japan hopes to be in 2025.

This requires some serious multitasking in Tokyo. As Japan can see from China, South Korea and Taiwan, taming the pandemic is a necessary first step toward economic recovery. For Suga's LDP, the stakes are even higher with the Olympics fast approaching.

The odds of staging the Games are negligible if Suga does not beat the virus. Sadly, he is sticking with the Abe-Trump playbook of putting growth ahead of bold leadership. Suga is making a big mistake in leaving the hard work to Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and her prefectural peers.

With COVID-19 infections above 6,000 per day, Japan is in the global news stream for all the wrong reasons. Look no further than this Washington Post headline: "Japan declares state of emergency in Tokyo, paying price for coronavirus complacency." Or this from The Associated Press: "Spreading virus pulls Olympic torches off display in Japan."

Past success is not prologue, particularly with a virus that can mutate and render vaccines ineffective. Abe's make-1985-great-again gambit left the economy uniquely vulnerable to pandemic fallout. Now Suga risks resting on the laurels of Tokyo's early success battling the virus. And upping the odds that Japan will see a new prime minister in 2021.

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