A Personal Journal from September through October 2021
Kalani M. Fujiwara
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Cool fall winds of September 2021 in Japan started to flow as the devastation of the Delta wave receded. The Olympics was no longer a news item as it already ended and was forgotten. The COVID-19 pandemic was still an ongoing crisis in Japan. After 19 months since it started, there was no sign the pandemic was going away. The Japanese media was already predicting the sixth wave of infections starting in the winter. The state of emergency rules were still enforced by the Japanese government as well as the local governments in Japan. Restaurants and bars still closed by 8 p.m. Social events like festivals were canceled or held with limited capacity for the second year. There was still a sense of unease and dread all throughout Japan.
There were bright spots; however, during this stage of the pandemic. The vaccination rates shot up after the Olympics ended, and by the end of September, almost 70% of the population at least had two COVID-19 vaccination shots. I finally got my second Pfizer vaccination by mid-September, which, if you went by Japanese government priority, should have been back in June. However, the scramble and mis-prioritization due to the Olympics caused my vaccination to be delayed by two months. The state of emergency was actually taking effect, and the Delta variant wave of infections started to decrease at the end of September. COVID-19 hospitalization started to drop around the same time and was brought down to a more manageable level. There was a sense in Japan that the worst of the pandemic was over.
What occurred over the months of September to October 2021 in Japan was the political fallout that would end Prime Minister Suga’s administration with a short tenure of one year. The major cause of Prime Minister Suga’s fall from power was his administration’s horrible mismanagement of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan. As reported over the past months’ articles, every misstep or non-action by Prime Minister Suga and his administration in dealing with the pandemic was documented. Unfortunately for Prime Minister Suga and the ruling political party of Japan, the Liberal Democratic party, fall 2021 was one moment in time that gave the Japanese public a voice in their governance during the pandemic. A constitutionally mandated election for all the seats in the Japanese parliament lower house was up for grabs. This parliamentary election in Japan resembles closest to a presidential election in the United States.
Prime Minister Suga’s political party, the Liberal Democratic Party, conservative in nature, has dominated the political power in Japan since the end of World War II. The LDP has held on to the majority of the membership in the Japanese parliament lower house and wielded almost absolute political power. There were a couple of times in history when LDP lost the parliamentary elections and lost the prime minister position. In the summer of 2021, LDP had a strong majority of seats and was slated to maintain in the parliament due to the continued weakness of the opposition parties. However, two factors wrecked the carefully orchestrated narrative for the LDP regarding the upcoming elections. One factor was the mismanaged and inept response to the pandemic and to the public health in Japan by the Suga administration. The other factor was the unpopular Tökyö Olympics by the Japanese public. These factors brought very negative poll numbers for Prime Minister Suga and the LDP.
Prime Minister Suga and his administration should have benefitted from an “Olympic bounce” in popularity as he was able to successfully complete the Tökyö Olympic Games, albeit a year later. As per the reading of the last two dispatches, Prime Minister Suga was praised by the International Olympic Committee and the sports world for going through with the Tökyö 2020 games. However, among the majority of the Japanese public, there was a huge accusation that Prime Minister Suga only cared about the Olympic Games and the IOC and not about the health and safety of the Japanese public.
The major blow to Prime Minister Suga’s political prestige and the beginning of the end for his administration started at the Yokohama mayor elections held in August of 2021. Why did the Yokohama city mayor election have such a huge national impact? It is because the city of Yokohama and its people are constituents for Prime Minister Suga and, as a parliament member, he has represented the city for a couple of decades. In the 2021 Yokohama city mayor elections, there were many candidates, and the major city-wide issue was whether to build a casino resort in the city. Poll after poll indicated that the majority of the people of Yokohama were against building a casino. Media was harping on the casino issue all throughout the mayoral election. It was expected for Mr. Okonogi to win the election, due to the support of the LDP and the prime minister himself. However, the opposition party supported Dr. Yamanaka, whose entire campaign platform was on how to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and steps the city should take to ensure health and safety of its residents. Dr. Yamanaka’s election platform impressed a majority of voters, which allowed him to win the election and become the new mayor of Yokohama city. Mr. Okonogi’s losing campaign became a referendum of Prime Minister Suga and his administration. The loss for the prime minister was huge since Yokohama city is literally his political backyard.
The LDP bigwigs, fellow lawmakers and members decided after the results of the Yokohama city that having Prime Minister Suga as the “face” of the LDP for the upcoming parliamentary elections was a liability for the political party and his unpopularity with the public might endanger the LDP majority in the Japanese parliament in the October election. Thus, after a string of backroom maneuvers within the political factions and its leaders, the result was the resignation of Prime Minister Suga from his office and the position of LDP president.
Prime Minister Suga and his administration lasted only one year in office. A whole year of which Japan and the world was meshed in the global pandemic. Prime Minister Suga’s prioritization of economic activity and the Tökyö Olympics ran in counter with the Japanese public’s concerns on the deaths, hospitalizations and suffering of the pandemic. The fall of the Suga administration was the major fallout of the Delta variant wave in the fall of 2021. Eventually, the political factions within the LDP would select a new LDP president, who would go on to become the new prime minister of Japan. The current Prime Minister Kishida was selected by the LDP after a quick intraparty election. He became the new face of the LDP majority in parliament and would lead the LDP to allow the party to win the majority of the lower house seats. It was another LDP election victory on election day, which ironically was on Halloween. Seems like the Japanese public was asking the LDP, whether the new Kishida administration was a “trick or treat.”
Kalani M. Fujiwara was born in Japan and raised in Hawai‘i. He formerly taught political science at Kapi‘olani Community College and Honolulu Community College for 20 years. He lived in Japan off and on altogether for 12 years. He is currently living in Japan for the third time.