Tokyo’s Long Summer

The summer holidays and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games are coming to Tokyo where a fourth state of emergency was declared in July 2021. The rainy season has ended and the hot, humid summer approaches, but nightlife is restricted and bars and restaurants have been asked to refrain from serving alcohol at night. The current state of emergency is expected to continue until August 22. Tired of sheltering from the long drawn-out COVID-19 pandemic, people are going out in the evenings in ever increasing numbers despite saying that safety comes first. Tokyoites remain anxious and they are directing their dissatisfaction at the government.   

Together with Komeito, the junior coalition partner in the government, the LDP aimed to take a majority of the 127 seats up for grabs in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election held on July 4, but the end result was 56 seats (LDP 33, Komeito 23). Prior to the elections, most polls forecast significantly fewer seats for Tokyoites First, the party started by Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko who now acts as the party’s special advisor, and success for the LDP/Komeito. However, even though Tokyoites First lost 15 seats, the party still held its ground with 31 seats in the assembly making it the second largest party. 

The following election points became evident following a survey of ten thousand Tokyoites conducted shortly before the elections by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK). The voting focused on the following policy issues: economic and employment measures (42%, multiple answers), COVID-19 measures excluding vaccination (39%), healthcare measures (35%), and sound finances (32%). Demands of the Tokyo metropolitan government included expanding the medical and healthcare systems (33%), economic and employment measures (31%), early vaccinations (29%), and stronger infection control measures during Tokyo 2020 (23%). The contributing factors are concerns about COVID-19 infections (82%, multiple answers), lack of access to healthcare (78%), inability to return to pre-pandemic life (64%), reduced income (59%), fewer personal interactions (59%), vaccination delays (52%), fewer educational opportunities (48%), and unemployment (45%) among other factors. This is roughly consistent with other surveys about the government measures.

In the NHK survey, 39% of respondents said that they approve of the Tokyo metropolitan government’s COVID-19 countermeasures while 61% said they disapprove. In contrast, when asked the same question about the countermeasures by the Japanese government, 25% said they approved while 75% disapproved. 

We can draw some conclusions from these results. While people are harsh critics of the LDP, which is responsible for affairs of state, the Koike metropolitan government has achieved a measure of approval. The communication skills of the leaders speak volumes. When the NHK survey asked about Koike’s coronavirus response, respondents said that she is a good communicator (36%, multiple answers), she has political appeal (28%), she negotiates with the government on an equal footing (25%), and she has the ability to respond to fluctuating situations (15%). This is a major difference with Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide who was criticized for communications that lack resonance or for simply reading out words from a piece of paper. 

The other point is the sluggish performance of the national opposition parties. The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) won 19 seats while the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), which coordinated with the JCP on electoral districts, increased its seats on the assembly by seven to take 15 seats, but the national opposition parties were unable to increase their share of the votes in Tokyo.

In any election, the presence of swing voters is a factor that influences the results. Looking at the surveys, swing voters accounted for a large cluster of eligible voters of around 40%. According to the Asahi Shimbun exit poll for the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election, 25% of swing voters picked Tokyoites First, 16% JCP, 15% LDP, and 15% CDPJ.

According to the surveys of Cabinet approval ratings conducted by NHK and the Yomiuri Shimbun between July 9 and 11, the approval ratings for the Suga cabinet were 33% and 37% respectively, while the disapproval ratings were 46% and 53% respectively. These figures are both record highs and record lows. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun survey, swing voters, who accounted for 43% of respondents, gave the Cabinet an approval rating of 18% and a disapproval rating of 71%. Among the reasons for the lack of support, 75% of these swing voters mentioned that they did not have a high opinion of the handling of COVID-19, a figure that far exceeds 66% across all respondents. These swing voters are likely to hold the key to the House of Representatives election in the fall.

The term of office for the LDP President is up at the end of September while the term for the members of House of Representatives ends on October 21. 

In addition to the successful completion of Tokyo 2020, the key to the survival of the Suga administration is whether or not they are able to gain approval for their COVID-19 measures, in particular to speed up vaccinations, and economic measures under the state of emergency. The agenda for the LDP presidential election will depend on their success or failure. If they weather the storm, the LDP can then look ahead to the House of Representatives election. If not, they will pick a new face for the administration in the LDP presidential election, dissolve the House of Representatives and deal with the House of Representatives election.  

The humid summers in Tokyo are long. Holding Tokyo 2020 under these conditions, we should hope for lessons learnt rather than a legacy. Any lessons will undoubtedly prove useful for future Olympic Games. In the meantime, what lessons will Japanese politics learn and how will these lessons be applied to the various other volatile elements confronting us such as the intensifying confrontation between China and the United States? Many challenges lie ahead.    

Mizuno Tetsu is a freelance journalist.

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