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Opinion Japan could be on the brink of a second wave. Will Shinzo Abe act?

Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, at a news conference in Tokyo on June 18. (Rodrigo Reyes Marin/Bloomberg)
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William Pesek is a Tokyo-based writer and author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.”

As President Trump despairs over his tanking approval ratings, he can at least take solace in the fact that his pal Shinzo Abe’s numbers are worse.

Arguably no leader in Asia is having a worse 2020 than Japan’s prime minister. Disenchantment over Abe’s coronavirus response is knocking support rates for his cabinet toward the 30 percent range (and even lower in some cases).

After winning global praise for containing the first wave in May, Japan is facing a steady resurgence. Its second wave will seem tame by U.S. standards. Japan’s entire coronavirus death toll since January — about 1,052 deaths — is roughly what the United States sees in a day. Even as Japan discovers new infection clusters, its overall recorded case load of 49,605 is less than that of the Bronx.

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Yet a dearth of testing and Abe’s aloof demeanor has many Japanese fearing the nation is sitting on a ticking time bomb of sorts. Abe, not unlike his ally in the White House, has largely withdrawn from day-to-day decision-making. This has his Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga rebuting reports, and dodging questions, about Abe’s health — and if his days are numbered.

What is clearly concerning is the lack of urgency as infections heat up anew. The problem was a hasty and haphazard reopening of the economy. Abe cribbed from the Trumpian playbook and favored getting back to business. That meant tens of millions of people who had been working at home for the first time in their careers were suddenly under pressure to turn up at the office.

Anyone who has seen Tokyo’s jam-packed subways, even at off-peak times, can understand the risks. Now imagine repeating the error in Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, Hiroshima and Fukuoka in the west, Yokohama to the south, Sapporo to the north and every medium-sized city in between.

Imagine, too, Abe’s government promoting a “Go To Travel” program encouraging domestic travel with public subsidies. This was supposed to be the year Japan welcomed a record 40 million foreign visitors, thanks largely to the Tokyo Olympics that should be unfolding at this very moment. The Games were postponed, and Japan’s airports are eerily quiet.

The real problem, though, was the Abe government’s decision to ignore Shigeru Omi. Omi, head of a government panel of experts advising Abe’s team, said the domestic tourism push was dangerous and should be scrapped. He was overruled, demonstrating once again that the Nikkei Stock Average has priority over public safety.

Japan’s almost linear focus on the economy explains the about-face from global success story to cautionary tale. Just two months ago, the “Japan model” was getting quite a run in the global media. Its mix of limited testing, soft lockdowns and tolerance of businesses staying open seemed worthy of study. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso even mused about the cultural “superiority” of the Japanese people.

That fostered complacency. By June, restaurants and bars were back to normal, while large events such as sumo wrestling and baseball restarted. Having reopened once, Abe’s government seems reluctant to declare another state of emergency — even though more than 60 percent of Japanese people want one.

Abe’s stubbornness suggests this is more about his legacy than the good of the nation. For Japanese leaders, an approval rating in the low 30s means the end is near. Lame-duck chatter concerning Abe is everywhere in Nagatacho, Tokyo’s answer to Capitol Hill.

The irony is that the more Abe resists getting a firm grip on the virus, the more the economy — and his support — will suffer anyway. In recent months, his government announced $2 trillion of stimulus spending, equivalent to 40 percent of gross domestic product. And yet economists expect GDP to have cratered more than 20 percent in the April-June quarter.

Things might get worse as Trump ramps up his China trade war. Threats to ban the Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat apps signal quite the escalation. His move to sanction 11 mainland officials and their allies in Hong Kong, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam, will precipitate a tit-for-tat arms race that puts Asia’s supply chains and export markets in danger.

Domestic risks abound, too. Japan’s annual Obon holiday begins on Aug. 13. It’s a multiday travel extravaganza that typically has millions returning to hometowns for reunions with elderly relatives. Health officials fear it will be a super-spreader disaster.

Thankfully, there are scattered signs of leadership. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is way ahead of Abe in threatening another emergency declaration. Okinawa, home to a critical mass of U.S. troops, has already done just that. Osaka is gradually adding new restrictions for restaurants and bars.

But the prime minister has been AWOL at a moment when bold national leadership has rarely been needed more. You’d think Abe would’ve learned from Trump by now that denial won’t reverse Japan’s second wave. For now, you’d be wrong.

Read more:

William Pesek: Japan’s leader is following a Trumpian playbook on the coronavirus

William Pesek: Japan’s coronavirus response is too little, too late

Jeff Kingston: Goodbye, Tokyo 2020. It’s time to start hoping for 2021.

Jeff Kingston: Japan’s response to the coronavirus is a slow-motion train wreck

B.J. Lee: Forget Putin and Kim. Trump’s real soulmate lives in Tokyo.

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