Gerald L. Curtis Shares Forecast for Political Change in the Post-Abe Era

December 17, 2020

Since Japan’s longest-serving prime minister Shinzo Abe resigned for health reasons in August 2020, spectators have been keen to see how his successor, Yoshihide Suga, will depart from Abe’s legacy. In a webinar held on December 8, 2020, Gerald L. Curtis, Burgess Professor Emeritus of Political Science and a core faculty member of both CJEB and WEAI, suggested that Suga has not strayed far from the path Abe paved before him, but has various challenges ahead if he hopes to maintain the prime ministership past his current one-year lease.

A tactical strategist whose previous role as Chief Cabinet Secretary kept him largely focused on domestic issues, Suga’s skillset makes him a different kind of prime minister than Abe. “Suga is not going to play the leadership role that made Abe an important player on the international stage,” Curtis said. But he noted that “Prime Minister Suga may well conclude that there’s not much need to define his own goals and objectives,” adding that the Japanese public which kept Abe in power for over seven years might be comfortable with an approach that stays within Abe’s framework.

When it comes to foreign policy, that framework, Curtis explained, consists of four prongs:
strengthening the US-Japan security alliance, strengthening Japan’s self-defense capabilities while relaxing constraints imposed by Article 9 of the Constitution, maintaining a strong economic relationship with China while fending off Chinese tech dominance and holding firm on territorial disputes, and strengthening security and economic ties with countries in the region. How Japan’s foreign policy strategy evolves will be heavily influenced by the strategy US President-elect Joe Biden adopts towards Asia, Curtis suggested.

Whether Suga is able to stay at the helm beyond next September when his current term as LDP party president ends will depend on how well he is able to turn around his decline in popular support over the three months he has been in office and retain the support of the party’s Diet contingent. Despite public enthusiasm upon taking office, his levels of support have been on a steep downward trajectory, dropping from an initial 74% public support rating down to 65% in the next month, according to a Nikkei poll. Support dropped further, to 51%, in a December 6 Kyodo opinion survey. A Mainichi Shimbun poll published on December 13, a few days after Curtis’s talk, found only 40% of respondents supporting Suga, while 49% disapprove of his performance as prime minister.

Suga is being criticized for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and accused of prioritizing the economy over public health through the “Go-To-Travel” tourism campaign. Only 14% of respondents in the Mainichi poll approve of his handling of the surge in Covid cases with 62% indicating disapproval, an increase of 27 points since the previous poll. (On December 14, Suga reversed his decision to proceed with the Go-To-Travel campaign, announcing that it would be suspended December 28–January 11.)

Curtis highlighted that Suga’s troubles were compounded by his “ill-considered” decision to
break from precedent and reject the recommendations of the Japan Science Council regarding the appointment of six people to the governing council. Suga denied that his decision had anything to do with the nominees’ history of criticizing the government’s national security policy and anti-conspiracy legislation, but he proved unable to come up with a satisfactory explanation for his action. The result was widespread public criticism of what has been seen as a veiled attack on academic freedom.

Additionally, Curtis said, Prime Minister Suga’s decision to make a Japanese commitment to
carbon neutrality by 2050, though a laudable goal in its own right, raises difficult policy issues, not the least of which is whether to try to increase dependence on nuclear power despite intense public opposition.

This event was organized and cosponsored by the Center on Japanese Economy and Business (CJEB), the Columbia School of Business, and the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. CJEB Director and Carl S. Shoup Professor of the Japanese Economy, David E. Weinstein, moderated the event.