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Japan's Leader Will Step Down, Damaged By Criticism Of His COVID Response

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga bows during a press conference at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Friday, following his announcement that he will not seek reelection for Liberal Democratic Party leadership this month.
Kazuhiro Nogi
AFP via Getty Images
Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga bows during a press conference at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Friday, following his announcement that he will not seek reelection for Liberal Democratic Party leadership this month.

Updated September 3, 2021 at 10:57 AM ET

SEOUL — Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga effectively announced his resignation, after his handling of the coronavirus pandemic cost him public support and dimmed his party's prospects ahead of general elections this fall.

Suga's exit after just under a year in power raises the specter of a return to a "revolving door" succession of Japanese leaders, who each serve one-year terms and leave a key U.S. ally politically adrift, just as Washington needs its cooperation on most aspects of Asia policy.

Suga told an executive meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that he would not run for president in internal elections at the end of the month. The LDP has run Japan for most of the past seven decades and because of its dominance in parliament, its president is virtually assured of becoming prime minister.

Suga later told reporters that he had other priorities. "A huge amount of energy would have been required to deal with the pandemic and also conduct party presidential campaign activities," he said.

"I felt it would have been impossible to do both so I had to decide on one of the two," Suga added.

A fourth state of emergency over much of Japan has failed to get a fifth wave of coronavirus infections under control. The country's plodding vaccine rollout has been sharply criticized. And as of Aug. 25, some 118,000 COVID-19 patients were stuck at home, after Suga decreed that hospital beds should be reserved only for serious cases.

Suga's handling of the pandemic has indeed been his Achilles' heel. It has contributed to his approval ratings slumping to a record low, below 30%.

In some of his party members' eyes, it had made him a political liability, costing LDP candidates their seats in local elections over the summer, and with general elections that have to be called by Nov. 28.

"There are a lot of LDP members who I think are looking at what's happening in their districts and just did not want to have to go into an election with him as the face of the party," argues Tobias Harris, a Japan expert at the Center for American Progress.

While the chronically disorganized opposition is unlikely to seize power from the LDP, Harris estimates the LDP could lose about a dozen seats in parliament this fall. If that happened, the expert says, Suga would "end up having to resign anyway. I mean, his position would truly be untenable."

Several LDP politicians have thrown their hat in the ring to succeed Suga. They include former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, former Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and Georgetown University-educated, fluent English-speaking Taro Kono, currently in charge of Japan's vaccine rollout.

Suga took office nearly a year ago, following the resignation of his former boss, Shinzo Abe. Abe's eight years in office was the longest of any Japanese prime minister. Before that, Japan had six prime ministers in as many years, which was widely seen as a sign of aimless drift and stagnation in Japanese politics.

After the Abe administration, in which the LDP's powerful internal factions remained largely united, Harris says, "we're seeing that there are internal conflicts in the LDP that have been suppressed for a long time, that are very much active and I think will be a factor going forward."

The prospect of ruling party disunity and heavy turnover at the top in Tokyo cannot be welcome developments for Washington, which is counting on Japan's cooperation in facing China's challenge to its primacy in Asia.

That includes dealing with security hot spots such as the East and South China Seas and Taiwan, building regional infrastructure, securing supply chains and replenishing the short global supply of semiconductors.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.