Makeover fails to sprinkle magic on Japan?s embattled prime minister

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After being catapulted to Japan’s top job in September following the resignation of Shinzo Abe on health grounds, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga even began his news conferences with an uncharacteristic, if somewhat uncertain, smile.

Japan’s compliant media outlets lapped it up. Suga’s approval rating soared into the 70s.

Here was a man, the political honeymoon stories implied, that the Japanese people could trust to lead them out of the pandemic and toward the country’s long-awaited renaissance.

It was not long before the bubble burst.

Still only around 100 days since he took office, Suga’s approval ratings have cratered into the low 30s.

Ironically, for a man who spent eight years as the government’s chief spokesman, Suga has stumbled in communicating a clear message or showing empathy for a country still struggling to climb out of the pandemic.

The first crack in Suga’s softer image came when he blocked the appointment of six academics to Japan’s supposedly autonomous Science Council in October and failed to convincingly explain to parliament why he had done so. All six academics had been critical of the government’s national security policy in the past.

The Asahi newspaper complained that the Suga administration, like Abe’s before it, was already showing “a tendency to try to silence people and organizations it disfavors, fudge the facts and ignore dissenting voices.”

Pandemic missteps

But the public’s faith in Suga’s reputation for efficient decision-making was badly dented as he persisted with a travel subsidy program meant to boost domestic tourism in the teeth of an ever-worsening virus outbreak. The Mainichi newspaper, usually fairly reserved in its criticism, lambasted the “utter failure” of Japan’s coronavirus policy as a result of Suga’s failure to heed expert advice.

As chief government spokesman, Suga had perfected the art of responding to journalists’ questions with stock answers and treating difficult questions with apparent disdain.

That might be a good skill for a spokesman, especially in a country that tends to value the self-effacing over the self-aggrandizing. But it hasn’t served Suga well in the top job.

To connect with ordinary people, Suga needed to “stop his practice of monotonously reading aloud written answers that were prepared by bureaucrats and halt his signature ‘I will refrain from replying to that’ responses” to questions in parliament, Asahi said in another scathing editorial.

The attempts to inject a touch of humanity, even humor, have backfired, too.

In an online program, he jokingly introduced himself as “Gasu,” playfully switching the syllables of his name. It went down like a lead balloon.

By January, Mainichi reported, the “Gasu” nickname had been replaced by another: “Sugalin,” a reference to Russian dictator Joseph Stalin and to Suga’s ruthlessness in firing a series of officials.

It didn’t help when he was caught having dinner in an upscale steak restaurant with a group of celebrities and politicians in apparent disregard of the government’s own coronavirus rules.

Part of the problem lies with Japan’s political system, the dominance of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and the way it effectively decides on its leader through back-room negotiations between the party’s various factions.

Suga’s skills in that bruising arena did not necessarily equip him for the role of national leader, said Rochelle Kopp, a management, communications and public relations consultant in Japan.

“In the United States, right from the beginning, candidates have to package themselves, they have to communicate directly to the people because they need their direct support,” she said.

“In Japan, the prime minister is not directly chosen by the people, so politicians need to optimize internal political processes. The person who is optimized for internal political processes may not be the one who has most ability to appeal to the general public.”

‘Woeful communicator’

Suga is aware he isn’t connecting, and last week sought advice from the LDP’s online media expert, the Mainichi newspaper reported. Taro Yamada reportedly told the prime minister his tweets were too matter-of-fact, and unless they “come with a passion, they won’t spread.”

But Kopp, who teaches leadership communication, says it’s more than passion that Suga needs: It’s a clear message.

“Even if he were able to communicate more passionately, what is it that you’re going to communicate to people?” she asked. “And if there’s no content to it, then all the passion in the world doesn’t do any good.”

Tobias Harris, an expert on Japanese politics at Teneo Intelligence, said Suga is “trapped between a public that wants the government to be more proactive” in containing the virus and a business community that is “anxious about the impact even of soft shutdowns,” he said.

“The pandemic is just a hard problem, and it’s hard to think of many leaders — outside of the countries that have all but contained it — that have successfully managed the balance between business interests and public health with their reputations intact,” he said.

Still, with an LDP leadership election scheduled for September and a general election due by the fall, the opinion polls don’t make comfortable reading for the party.

“Suga has demonstrated poor political skills, zero empathy and is a woeful communicator,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan. “His chances of remaining PM are fading fast.”

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