Japan’s change of prime minister fails to stem government’s problems

Yoshihide Suga during his first press conference as Prime Minister of Japan (Official Website of the Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet/Creative Commons)

2020 was a tempestuous year for Japan, as well as the rest of the world. In August, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history. However, it had been clear for some time that this was a government nearing the end of its shelf-life. It managed to stagger on for a month longer before Abe’s resignation (ostensibly because of a recurrence of an illness).

Abe had been able to govern for so long because of the weakness of the main opposition forces, changes in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and because the period from 2012 to 2020 had been a period of gradual recovery from the 2008 crash and the ‘Great Recession’ that followed. There were also fears sparked by the growth of China as a major, and its military build-up, which Abe was able to exploit to promote Japanese nationalism.

It was not the pandemic alone that ended Abe’s hold on power. The October 2019 increase in Sales Tax to 10% had already led to a slowing of economic growth and, with it, a decline in Abe’s popularity. A disastrous collapse in his opinion poll ratings followed a series of scandals – the ‘Moritomo Gakuen’, ‘Kake Gakuen’ and the ‘Cherry Blossom Viewing party’ scandals. There was also Abe’s attempt to delay the retirement of his supporter, Kurokawa Hiromu – a Justice Ministry bureaucrat – in order to make him Prosecutor-General and have him “handle” the legal fall-out from these scandals.

The odour of corruption hanging over his government proved difficult to shake off. Abe’s situation was made even more difficult in May when Kurokawa was forced to resign for participating in a mahjong game that breached both the law on gambling and social distancing guidelines.

While Japan was initially not affected as severely as many other countries by the pandemic, the government’s missteps and incompetence had been clear for all to see and the government was given little credit for this. In May, with the ending of the state of emergency, Abe declared that his government had “beaten the virus”. However, a second wave in the summer months, while smaller than the initial outbreak, made it clear that this was not the case.

Polls

By the end of June, opinion polls were showing 69% opposed to giving Abe a fourth term in office, with only 19% in favour. From this time on, Abe appeared to withdraw from politics, pushing his Chief Cabinet Secretary, Suga Yoshihide, to the fore. While the reason given for his September resignation was a recurrence of health problems, rumours circulated that behind the scenes a deal had been cut that he would not face prosecution for the scandals on condition that he resigned. A decision was subsequently taken not to prosecute Abe for the Cherry-blossom viewing party scandal, despite proof that the law had been broken and that he had lied to the Diet (parliament) on multiple occasions. His secretary was made the fall-guy.

The former cabinet secretary, Suga, became the new prime minister. While Suga was the “continuity” candidate for Abe’s policies and had Abe’s backing, the media were able to give him a make-over. He was the ‘son of a strawberry farmer’, the ‘uncle who does a hundred sit-ups every morning’ and who has ‘gained his position by hard-work’. His relatively humble upbringing was contrasted favourably with that of Abe – the political blue-blood who has two former prime-ministers as family members.

Suga, like Abe, is a member of the nationalist Nihon-Kaigi party but he was portrayed as “less ideological” and as a “hard-working pragmatist”. This had a temporary effect. He enjoyed a brief honeymoon period with 68% in the polls expressing support for his cabinet.

Honeymoon over

The honeymoon did not last long though. In what was widely seen as an attack on academic freedom, Suga blocked the appointment to the Japan Science Council of six scientists who had been critical of some government policies. It was the first time this had been done; previously government approval had been seen as a mere formality. It was not this alone, but his complete inability to explain to the Diet the reasons why the six had been blocked. A number of those involved had previously given advice to the government on their areas of expertise. To openly admit they had been victimised because of their political views on other issues would have supported the opposition’s arguments. So Suga simply refused to give reasons. In addition to this, the investigations into Abe’s scandals revealed that he too had repeatedly lied to the Diet.

The real erosion of support for Suga has come as a result of his response to the pandemic. Like Abe before him, he has always prioritised “the economy”, by which he means corporate profits, over health concerns.

While the major corporations have been able to ride out the recession, relying on their massive cash reserves, the pandemic has proved disastrous for the tourist and hospitality industries, with large numbers of bankruptcies of family and individually-owned bars and eating places. These have been devastated by the closure of borders to tourism from neighbouring Asian and other countries. Before the epidemic this had been a boom area and was expected to continue until after the Olympics.

The government’s answer to this was to promote domestic tourism, with two programmes dubbed – in English rather than Japanese – “Go To Travel” and “Go To Eat”. This was giving government subsidies to customers, rather than providing income support for those working in these industries. The effect of this scheme was to spread the virus to areas only lightly or not at all affected in the Spring. Suga, who was personally identified with these programmes, at first opposed their scrapping and only temporarily suspended them when government experts called for their ending.

Covid

As the number of COVID 19 cases exploded in late November, Suga has consistently delayed and opposed measures to prevent the spread of the virus, seeing as a threat to economic recovery. It was only when the health service reached the point of collapse in a number of cities that, on 8 January, and after calls from governors and his own experts, Suga declared a month-long state of emergency in Tokyo and surrounding areas.

At the time, opinion polls showed 71% of those surveyed supported a state of emergency. The measures – allowing prefectoral governors to request restaurants and bars to stop selling alcohol from 7 pm and close by 8 pm – were about a month too late and completely inadequate.

The government, while urging employers to expand teleworking and commuters to reduce their use of public transport by an unrealistic 70%, has pushed for ‘business as usual’ at educational institutions. It has pressurised universities, which are presently teaching many classes online, to move towards face-to-face classes.

Hypocrisy

Taken unawares by this third wave, some in the government have started to blame individuals for not following guidelines. This takes some nerve!

Over 95% of people in the major cities are still wearing masks on public transport. Many people did not travel over the New Year to visit families. The government guidelines ask people to avoid social gatherings of more than four people. Meanwhile, Suga attended a party to eat steak with eight LDP big-wigs and prominent business people at a Tokyo steakhouse.

Up until now, the law gives the government very few powers to enforce directives. Prefectoral governors can ask businesses to close and publicise their names if they refuse. It relies on social pressure to enforce the rules. Given the nature of Japanese society, this has been quite effective.

However, as part of the move to deflect blame away from the government, Suga is now talking about introducing fines and legal measures. The CWI in Japan calls for workers’ health and safety to come first and foremost and for a living wage for all workers and for other key demands (see our demands below). Suga’s proposed laws will not see the government using its power to close down workplaces where employers cannot ensure a safe workplace, on the basis of full pay for workers. Instead, Suga’s proposals are part of a strategy to pass the buck from the government’s incompetence, to be seen to be doing something, and could potentially be used against workers and restrict our rights.

The government is not even planning to start vaccinations until the end of February, starting with health workers and medical staff. Despite the slow start to vaccinations, Suga, like Abe before him, has insisted that the Olympics will go ahead this summer, even though this is now looking increasingly unlikely. In a recent opinion poll, 80% were in favour of postponing or cancelling the Olympic Games, with 35% in favour of cancelling them outright. The poll showed that 68% are dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Dissatisfaction

As dissatisfaction with the government has mounted, criticism both inside and outside the government has increased. Suga was Abe’s “enforcer” and had gained a reputation for bullying those who disagreed with him. Civil servants who spoke out or opposed his proposals were often denied promotion or even transferred to other departments.

One foreign commentator described him as, “A graceless drone with an exceptionally poor capacity to communicate, show empathy or tolerate dissent.” An article in the daily Mainichi Newspaper mentioned that he had earned the nick-name “Sugalin” amongst his colleagues, comparing him to Joseph Stalin. When asked about this, a prominent LDP member apparently smiled and correctly made the point: “When they’re really scared, government officials wouldn’t use the nickname ‘Sugalin’. The fact that this nickname is spreading is itself proof that Suga’s authority has been declining”.

To add to his problems, the premier is not a member of one of the major factions. It seems likely that he will, at some stage,. be pushed to the side and replaced by a less tainted LDP figure. Already there is talk about him resigning in March.

The LDP hopes that they can do what they did with Abe and maintain power merely by replacing the prime minister and shuffling the cabinet. They have only been able to do this because of the weakness of the opposition.

Opposition

In numerical terms, the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) has strengthened itself in the past period, with the majority of representatives of both the Democratic Party for the People and the tiny Social Democratic Party joining them. However, this strengthening in numbers was achieved at the cost of a political weakening.

The CDP contains members with widely divergent views. The party offers no consistent economic alternative policy to that of the LDP. A section of the party – those who come from various break-aways from the LDP – support a more laissez-faire, neo-Liberal economic policy than the government. Others coming from the Social Democratic Party retain some links to organised labour but have long ago lost any belief in socialism as an alternative to capitalism.

In reality, the CDPJ is a liberal party that is not regarded by most Japanese workers as their party. If it were to come to power it would face exactly the same problem as the Democratic Party, doing what it promised not to do. Some of its members that came from the now-defunct Democratic Party and the Democratic Party for the People, even support the revision of the post-war constitution, which the LDP is attempting, to allow the build-up and use of military forces overseas amongst other reactionary proposals.

The Japanese Communist Party, while larger than many other parties claiming to be Communist today, is communist only in name. While it still claims socialism as a final aim, it argues that Japan must first become an advanced democracy. It limits itself to calling for increased regulation of corporate power.

Since Shinzo Abe’s attempts to revise the constitution, the Communist Party has shifted from a position of splendid isolation to being part of a loose alliance with the liberal opposition. It lends its support to opposition candidates, but because of its past, it is kept at arm’s length and is never completely trusted by the other opposition parties.

The only other force on the left, though, is the small left-populist Reiwa Shinsengumi. It was built around former TV personality, Yamamoto Taro. The party claims to speak for those excluded from Japanese society, taking up disability and LGBT issues. It fared quite well in the last elections and won two Diet positions – both people with severe disabilities. However, while the RS is widely seen as a left-party, it is not explicitly socialist. It limits itself to showing how the burden of taxation has been shifted from corporations to the working and middle-classes.

Workers’ alternative

As in many countries, the working class lacks a political party of its own. The largest trade union federation, Rengo, is politically divided at present. The more conservative company unions in the private sector, such as the auto-workers, electric power workers, and electrical workers, have moved from supporting the right-wing of the Democratic Party openly into the orbit of the government. They would not support the Constitutional Democratic Party because of its opposition to nuclear power (where many members work) and because that party was in a loose block with the Japanese Communist Party. These unions openly espouse class collaboration and are opposed to the idea of class struggle.

While the JCP does have its own union federation – Zenroren – the more left-wing unions tend to back individual candidates from either the CDPJ, the JCP or the Social Democrats who are now reduced to only one member in the Diet.

It is not clear whether the pandemic, the developing crisis and discontent with the government will lead to a swing to the opposition or whether the LDP will be able once again to hang on with a change of leaders.

On the one hand, the third wave of the Covid crisis is likely to push the economy into a double-dip recession. Short term economic developments are highly dependent on the course of the pandemic. It is possible that the Asian countries, which up until now have been less severely hit by the pandemic, will be playing an increasingly important role in the recovery.

However, more shocks and crises are sure to be produced by the clash of imperialist powers on a world scale. The shift of economic power to the East heightens the conflict of interests between the US, China and Japan which has its own distinct interests. Whatever happens in the short-term, and however weak are the workers’ organisations, given the massive problems facing Japan’s working class there is likely to be an intensification of class struggle and movements by the working class to take things into their own hands.

The CWI in Japan fights for:

* Sick leave on full pay for all workers – regular or irregular.

* Full pay for all those forced to self-isolate or laid off due to the epidemic.

* For fighting unions, independent of management.

* Employers to provide safety measures and Personal Protective Equipment for all who are working.

* For the shutdown on full-pay of all workplaces where management are unable to create a safe working environment.

* Workers with pre-existing health conditions and in high-risk groups to be allowed to work from home or tele-commute.

* Public ownership of companies threatening closure or firings, under workers’ control and management.

* For an emergency programme to produce the medical supplies needed to fight the epidemic. For the speeding up of the vaccination programme.

* No to Suga’s proposed amendment to the Special Measures Act. No to extra powers that could be used against the labour movement.

* For popular committees elected from residents’ groups, medical organisations, health workers, trade unions, Parent Teacher Associations and local residents to decide on controls over movement, school closures, cancellations of events etc. in local areas.

* For a party of the working class armed with a fighting socialist programme.

 

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