TOKYO — Since the start of the year, Japanese people have assiduously heeded government advice to wear masks, wash hands and avoid crowds, helping to keep the coronavirus mostly in check despite a recent rebound in cases.
The dinner in Tokyo’s high-end Ginza neighborhood on Monday took place hours after Suga, responding to the surge in virus cases, suspended a subsidy program designed to revive domestic travel. Japanese media reported that seven or eight people attended the meal, including senior members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a baseball team chairman, an actor and a political critic.
Cornered by reporters as he left the venue, LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai said that “you can’t eat without taking off a mask,” and he insisted that the gathering was okay because “everyone was careful.” Kyodo News reported that Suga attended another, 15-person dinner that night.
On Wednesday, Suga said he had only meant to pop in to greet people at the dinner but ended up staying for 40 minutes. “I very much regret it,” he told Nippon Television Network in an interview.
As Japan struggles with the pandemic’s resurgence, Suga’s approval ratings have slumped from more than 60 percent in September, after he took over Japan’s top job from Shinzo Abe, to about 40 percent this month.
His performance is raising questions about his political acumen. Critics of Suga charge that, despite eight years as the chief government spokesman, he is a poor communicator who has struggled to explain himself in parliament or connect with ordinary voters as they contend with the pandemic and a recession.
The 72-year-old’s stiff display at a news conference this month invited unfavorable comparisons on social media with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s passionate pre-Christmas speech.
Most contentiously, Suga stood by the “Go To Travel” subsidy campaign — despite pleas from health professionals and a government medical adviser — as evidence piled up that it was fueling coronavirus infections.
The Mainichi newspaper said Suga’s belated decision to suspend the travel subsidies showed the government’s “utter coronavirus failure.”
The Japanese leader is far from the first official to be caught flouting their own pandemic advice; British government adviser Dominic Cummings and California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) were among those who violated restrictions.
But Suga’s decision to attend the dinner party confirmed some voters’ belief that he has failed to read the public mood.
“Does he understand why his popularity is falling?” wrote political journalist Akiko Azumi in an online comment that was shared widely. “The prime minister and the ruling party secretary general are not in a position of privilege that is free from the virus. . . . The cost of losing public trust will be dire.”
There was anger on social media and elsewhere.
“I am stunned. It’s so irresponsible,” one person wrote in a comment on Yahoo. “Let’s have Christmas, year-end parties, new year parties, big time. The government has given us the go-ahead. I will make reservations for the sake of the economy.”
Natsuo Yamaguchi, a lawmaker from Komeito, a center-right party and Suga’s coalition partner, told reporters Tuesday that the prime minister’s actions “send a message to the Japanese people.”
“I’d like him to think about this carefully and consider his actions going forward,” he added.
The government’s top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, said it was “extremely important for a politician to meet people from many different backgrounds and hear a variety of opinions,” and he denied there was an issue.
The prime minister “has always taken thorough care to follow basic infection precautions,” he said at a news conference.
Suga could face a leadership challenge next year if his support falls further, especially as elections for the lower house of parliament must be held by Oct. 21.
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan, said Suga’s honeymoon “has ended with a bang.”
“He is not a good communicator and scores zero on the empathy meter, responding woodenly and dodging questions he doesn’t like,” he said.
On Wednesday, Tokyo reported a record 678 new coronavirus infections, more than double November’s average daily rise.
Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.