Satohiro Akimoto, Chairman and President of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA
The latest Nikkei poll, conducted between October 24 and 25, shows that Japanese public support of the Suga cabinet is very high – 63% of respondents approved of the new cabinet, while only 26% of respondents did not approve.
Compared with Nikkei’s first poll after Mr. Suga took office, which was conducted between September 16 and 17, the cabinet approval rate has decreased from its high of 74%, while the disapproval rate has gone up from 17%. While the 11% point decline in the approval rate in a little more than a month seems big, there were in reality other factors boosting the approval rate in September. The 74% approval rate was exceptionally high and reflected the Japanese public’s sympathy for former Prime Minister Abe, who resigned suddenly due to illness. Furthermore, according to Nikkei, after 2000, only the Koizumi cabinet (April 2001 – September 2005) and the second Abe cabinet (December 2012 – September 2020) recorded higher approval ratings in the second survey as compared with the first survey following the establishment of a new cabinet.
As a matter of fact, there is an indication in the Nikkei poll that the Japanese public strongly supported the Suga cabinet in its early weeks. 52% of respondents approved actions taken by the Suga cabinet and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), while 30% of respondents disapproved of such actions. The average rate of approval ascribed to works performed by a new cabinet has been 45% since 2006. Therefore, the Suga cabinet received a much higher approval rating regarding its actions than the average during its initial period.
One of Prime Minister Suga’s priority policy issues is the reduction of cell phone user fees. This issue is a highly visible symbol of unnecessary regulation in the Japanese government, protected by vested interests and bureaucratic precedents. 82% of respondents support the Suga administration’s efforts to lower the fee, while only 10% oppose the Suga administration’s efforts.
The Suga cabinet received a 55% approval rating for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis and 30% disapproval rating in the latest Nikkei poll. Prime Minister Suga has been riding the coattails of his predecessor, former Prime Minister Abe, in terms of his popularity among the Japanese public. Obviously, it was the Abe administration which worked diligently to combat the COVID-19 crisis until Prime Minister Abe’s resignation in September, but ironically this was the first time that the approval rating regarding the government response to COVID-19 has gone above 50% since February. Prime Minister Suga has got lucky here, but it is now up to him to handle the COVID-19 crisis.
Incidentally, 54% of respondents opposed the Suga cabinet’s efforts to ease restrictions on foreign visitors to Japan, while 36% supported those efforts.
While the Japanese public is generally supportive of the Suga administration, criticism of the administration has arisen due to the lack of explanation given for the rejection of six new members recommended to join the government-sponsored Science Council. While only 17% of respondents supported the handling of the issue by the Suga administration, 70% objected to it.
Although Prime Minister Suga mishandled the Science Council nomination issue, the issue will eventually go away without dealing much long-term damage to the cabinet’s reputation. Case in point, 62% of respondents approved of government review of both the organization and budget of the Science Council, while only 22% disapproved of the government’s oversight of the Science Council.
Lastly, the Japanese public has clearly indicated its position on major deregulation issues, which it wants the Suga administration to tackle, including relaxation of telework hours (14%), promotion of renewable energy (14%), easing of entry to agriculture by corporations (12%), expansion of online medical treatment (12%), increasing foreign works (9%), introduction of self-driving technology (7%), and abolition of the use of personal seals or hanko (6%).
Prime Minister Suga won his party leadership position by securing strong support from Mr. Toshihiro Nikai, a powerful old guard of the LDP; the Komeito, a coalition partner party; and Mr. Toru Hashimoto, a maverick political activist with followers in the Nippon Ishin Party. In other words, there remain politicians such as Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Mr. Taro Aso who do not get along with Prime Minister Suga and Mr. Fumio Kishida, a major competitor in the September party election. Mr. Kishida said he would run for the party leadership again, immediately after Prime Minister Suga won the election. Both are likely looking for an opportunity to challenge Prime Minister Suga for more political influence. There are formidable political forces to reckon with. For this reason, it is imperative for Prime Minister Suga to hold on to a high level of Japanese public support for as long as possible.
 To view the Nikkei polling data referenced throughout the above article, please access: https://vdata.nikkei.com/newsgraphics/cabinet-approval-rating/