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Politics

Suga's approval rating remains low at 43%: Nikkei poll

90% of respondents say COVID-19 state of emergency should be extended

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's support rating has plummeted from 74% -- one of the highest in history -- when he took office in September last year.

TOKYO -- Public support for Suga's cabinet remains low as the government struggles to handle the country's COVID-19 situation.

The approval rating of Suga's cabinet was 43% in a weekend Nikkei/TV Tokyo opinion poll. While support was one percentage point higher than the previous poll in December, disapproval increased 2 points to 50% -- the second straight month it has exceeded approval.

Suga's rating has plummeted from 74% -- one of the highest in history -- when he took office in September last year.

The government declared a state of emergency in January for 11 prefectures, including Tokyo, Aichi and Osaka. But the new survey showed that 79% of respondents said it was called "too late," with 14% saying the timing was appropriate.

The current state of emergency is scheduled to end on Feb. 7. Some 45% of respondents said it should be extended in all areas where it is in effect, with the same proportion saying it should only go on longer in places seeing an increase in cases. In total, 90% agreed restrictions should be extended, while only 6% said it should be lifted in all areas.

Many people remain critical of the government's response to the coronavirus. Some 61% of respondents said they "do not appreciate" the government's measures to tackle COVID-19 -- the highest proportion since the same question was first asked last February. One-third said they "appreciate" the measures.

The Tokyo Olympics will have to be canceled if the coronavirus outbreak continues, according to 46% of respondents, with 36% deeming another delay unavoidable. Fifteen percent said the Olympics should be held as scheduled following concerted efforts to contain the virus.

At 55%, lack of leadership was the top reason given for not supporting Suga's cabinet, up from 48% in the December poll. This is the first time since July 2011, when Naoto Kan of the Democratic Party of Japan was prime minister, that more than 50% cited this as the main reason for not supporting the government.

Asked who the next prime minister should be, 25% of respondents named Taro Kono, a prominent member of Suga's cabinet as administrative and regulatory reform minister who also oversees COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Suga's current term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party ends in September.

Former Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who ran against Suga in last year's LDP race to succeed Shinzo Abe, came in second at 16%. Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, a rising star in the party and son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, followed at 13%. Abe and Suga rounded out the top five. Among LDP supporters, Kono was backed by 31%, followed by Abe at 13% and Ishiba.

According to the poll, greater cooperation to restrain China and North Korea should be the top priority for Japan's relations with the U.S. under President Joe Biden.

On policy areas where Tokyo and Washington should cooperate, 54% of respondents cited stepping up efforts to contain China and North Korea, followed by pandemic response at 43%.

Japan-U.S. relations will not change with Biden taking office, 64% of respondents said. Twenty-three percent expect ties to improve, while 7% foresee them worsening. The public sentiment stands in contrast with when Donald Trump took office in January 2017. With Trump raising the issue of the American trade deficit with Japan at the time, 53% expected relations to deteriorate.

The poll results reflect the public's concerns over Chinese military expansionism. Considering Biden's emphasis on climate change, some Japanese government officials are wary of an easing of U.S. policies targeting China compared with the Trump administration.

In a Thursday phone call, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Biden reaffirmed that Article 5 of the bilateral security treaty covers the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu. The treaty provision is interpreted to mean that the U.S. would treat any attack on the Senkakus as equivalent to an attack on American soil.

On pandemic response, Suga and Biden confirmed that the two countries would cooperate on ensuring vaccine supplies. Japan has lined up agreements for vaccines from American drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna. As countries around the world scramble for vaccine supplies, the poll results underscore the public's expectation that Japan will work with the U.S.

Progress on issues relating to American troops stationed in Japan, including burden-sharing for hosting costs and base relocation, was selected by 29% as a priority, with 26% citing economic national security, such as technology leaks.

The poll was conducted by Nikkei Research by phone from Friday to Sunday via random-digit dialing. It received 1,014 responses from people aged 18 and older, with a response rate of 46.8%.

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