While Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga calls for a faster introduction of vaccines for a nation that is catching up with much of the developed world, his top-down leadership style is being scrutinized after weeks of quick decisions that bypassed even members of his own cabinet.
Within a month, Suga quickly set ambitious vaccine targets. Opening of mass vaccination sites carried out by the self-defense forces who complete all vaccinations for people aged 65 and over by the end of July and The goal is 1 million doses per day. Annoyed by a surprisingly slow rollout, the prime minister turned to a commanding style that he refined during his nearly eight years as chief cabinet secretary in an attempt to find a more ambitious way forward.
“I think vaccines are the key to protecting every life,” Suga said on May 14.
However, this top-down approach of delivering results quickly could backfire and undermine the government’s traditional chain of command.
In fact, the government’s armament may already be cracked: when Suga decided to put three prefectures – Hiroshima, Okayama, and Hokkaido – under quasi-emergency viral measures instead of a full state of emergency in mid-May, it was him forced to withdraw due to strong objections from experts in a government body.
More than eight months after taking office, the Suga government continues to grapple with how to resolve disagreements between officials and present a unified front to the public. As chief cabinet secretary, Suga has been recognized for his exceptional ability to coordinate with various government agencies and bureaucrats. The lack of a Suga-like figure in his own cabinet has been lamented by some, including Suga’s old boss Shinzo Abe, who noted that there is no Suga in the Suga administration.
“Someone who is responsible for the coordination within the administration becomes a bulwark against the high-ranking ruler. So it is okay to have discussions or hesitation about political decisions between them,” said Takashi Ryuzaki, former political reporter and political scientist professor at Ryutsu Keizai University.
“However, when a prime minister tries to coordinate himself and his decisions are incoherent, questions about his determination arise, as is the case now. … I have the impression that Suga can only be satisfied when he has to make decisions about everything. “
Suga showed his appetite for control with recent measures taken to respond to the health crisis by issuing orders directly to cabinet ministers.
Earlier this year, he hired Taro Kono as minister in charge of introducing the vaccine and Minoru Kihara, a special adviser to the prime minister, to oversee border control operations. The changes came despite two ministers – Health Minister Norihisa Tamura and Economic Revitalization Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura – already tasked with handling the government’s coronavirus response.
He later switched on other cabinet ministers. On April 27, Suga ordered Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi to accelerate plans to open mass vaccination centers for the Self-Defense Forces in Osaka and Tokyo as both metropolitan areas were hit by a fourth wave of infections. These instructions bypassed Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, Nishimura, Tamura and Kono.
Until then, the municipalities were solely responsible for carrying out vaccinations according to the Ministry of Health’s timetable. Frustrated by the slow progress hampered by bureaucratic bureaucracy, the Prime Minister’s office continued the plan to mobilize SDF doctors and nurses to vaccinate up to 10,000 people a day in Tokyo and 5,000 a day in Osaka.
Other decisions followed a similar path.
During a press conference on April 23, the Prime Minister outlined his plan to have vaccines for every 36 million people aged 65 and over by the end of July. On May 7th, he also introduced a target of 1 million doses a day to meet the July target. Much like the plan for mass vaccination sites, Suga issued direct orders to Minister Ryota Takeda to have his Department of Home Affairs and Communications assist municipalities in ensuring a smooth vaccination program.
The prime minister’s top-down decision-making process has been an essential feature of the administration. With a view to speed, Suga used similar tactics in terms of carbon neutrality, cell phone bills, and digitization.
Rather than giving instructions to his chief cabinet secretary, who usually acts as the prime minister’s ambassador, Suga has shown a willingness to bypass Kato and deal directly with ministers. He often calls them to the Prime Minister’s office for updates and, if necessary, reprimanding them in order to speed up the project they are working on.
Ryuzaki of Ryutsu Keizai University noted that while Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga acted as an intermediary between Abe and other ministers and bureaucrats, he was frequently asked to make decisions on behalf of the Prime Minister. Suga has apparently not outgrown this position as he “does the same thing as the chief cabinet secretary,” said Ryuzaki.
“The prime minister has different issues to deal with, so there is a limit to what a person can do,” he said. “The Prime Minister makes the final decision based on the premise that there is someone in charge of broad coordination, as Mr Suga used to be. In other words, no prime minister can make all the decisions alone.
When Abe was prime minister, he consulted with a narrow circle of elite bureaucrats. He controlled the bureaucracy through Suga and Kazuhiro Sugita, the deputy head of cabinet, in order to carry out his political decisions.
Together, they employed a top-down style of leadership that expanded the decision-making authority of the Prime Minister’s office rather than letting the bureaucrats take responsibility for their own departments. Suga has earned a reputation among bureaucrats for not being ready to listen to opposing views and not hesitating to dismount them if they persistently disagree with his policies.
Sugita, who still serves as assistant cabinet secretary, reportedly orchestrated the mass vaccination plan with the help of the Self-Defense Forces. In his role, Sugita is supposed to support the chief cabinet secretary and manage bureaucrats as their head of administration. Despite his successful push for the mass vaccination sites, he appears to be less involved in making coronavirus policy decisions compared to his time under Abe. Instead, Suga often consults directly with advisor Hiroto Izumi and three senior officials from the Ministry of Health.
In terms of coordination within the administration, someone like Sugita could temporarily help with crisis management, but it would be difficult for someone in his position to do so continuously, said Izuru Makihara, a professor of Japanese politics at the University of Tokyo.
“I believe there has to be someone who can govern all ministers involved in the coronavirus response in the long term,” Makihara said.
There are signs that the lack of a reliable coordinator and Suga’s leadership style may not be tenable.
On May 14, the government asked experts in a government body for approval to take emergency countermeasures against several prefectures, including Okayama and Hiroshima, and not to grant Hokkaido a state of emergency. Apparently concerned about the economic impact of a total state of emergency, Suga urged a targeted approach to stem an increasing wave of infections in these areas.
The experts, who by then had reliably approved government decisions, rebelled against Suga’s assessment: Both infectious disease specialists and economists questioned the government’s plan to keep these regions out of a state of emergency – especially Hokkaido, which has a record of 712 new cases reported the day before.
Nishimura surrendered, left in the middle of the panel and rushed to the prime minister’s office. Nishimura then conferred with Suga, Health Minister Tamura and Kato after a cabinet meeting.
In an unprecedented move, Suga went back to his decision and decided to enforce the emergency. The government gave in because almost everyone on the panel felt the strictest option was necessary, according to a senior administrator familiar with the development.
The opposition camp took the opportunity to criticize Suga’s flip-flop.
Jun Azumi, the head of the Constitutional Democratic Party on Food, reprimanded Suga, claiming the incident broke public confidence in the government’s ability to govern itself.
The turnaround exposed the government’s inadequate coordination, Ryuzaki said.
Normally, Nishimura would have “called Kato asking for Suga’s decision, which is the role of chief cabinet secretary,” said Ryuzaki. “But Nishimura rushed to the prime minister’s office knowing that talking to Kato would be meaningless and would have to ask Suga’s decision.” directly to contain the situation. “
“Nishimura should rightly have known what the experts would propose (the day before the panel discussion) and advise the prime minister, if not the chief cabinet secretary,” he said. “But he knows the Prime Minister would tell him, ‘It’s your job to convince the experts.’ … Since Suga adopts such a style, the current environment would not have allowed Nishimura to give the Prime Minister his opinion beforehand. “
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