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Less Than A Year In Office, Japan's Yoshihide Suga Won't Seek Reelection


Japan's prime minister has effectively announced his resignation. He's been in office just under a year. General elections are coming up. The fall is shaping up to be a time of political uncertainty and change for the world's third largest economy.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Seoul to break it all down. Anthony, why is the prime minister stepping down?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Well, Yoshihide Suga told reporters today that he's not going to stand for election as head of his party, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, when it holds internal elections at the - by month's end. And that means that pretty much for sure he will not serve another term as prime minister. What Suga told reporters is that he now wants to focus his efforts on handling the pandemic. And that's understandable. The bigger picture is that he has lost popularity due to the way he has handled the pandemic. His approval rating has plummeted to below 30%. And this has really clouded the ruling party's chances in general elections that are coming up this fall.

I spoke about this with Tobias Harris, who's a Japan expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington. And he predicts that the ruling party could possibly lose dozens of seats in parliament in the fall vote. Let's give a listen to him.

TOBIAS HARRIS: If Suga ends up leading the party, you know, into that kind of electoral outcome, he'd end up having to resign anyway. I mean, you know, his position would truly be untenable. 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.

KUHN: And, in fact, you know, Suga's allies and ruling party candidates got trounced in local elections over the summer by voters who were pretty much unhappy at his handling of the pandemic.

MARTÍNEZ: So why are people so angry at Suga's handling of COVID?

KUHN: Well, they - people think he's been slow to declare states of emergency because he's worried about the economic impact. Most of the country is now under a fourth state of emergency. But cases still are stubbornly high. Japan's vaccine rollout has been very slow. And Suga insisted on holding the Olympics in the middle of the pandemic, despite widespread opposition.

Japan now has tens of thousands of people who are sick with COVID at home, unable to get a hospital bed after Suga said they - those beds should be reserved for the most serious cases. So many Japanese people just feel like he's putting politics and economics ahead of their health.

MARTÍNEZ: Japan has had a lot of one-term leaders in recent years. So how concerned are people about political continuity and stability?

KUHN: Quite a bit - Suga came to power following the resignation of his former boss, Japan's longest serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who was on the job for eight years. And before him, Japan had six prime ministers in six years. So the concern is that the country is entering this - another phase of sort of like revolving door, high turnover in the top job. And remember that the ruling party, the LDP, has held on to power for most of the past seven decades. So while it's not likely to lose power altogether, it looks like internal divisions and competition within the party are heating up.

MARTÍNEZ: Japan is also a very key U.S. ally. So what does this mean for the United States?

KUHN: Well, to Japan, their alliance with the U.S. is really the cornerstone of their foreign policy. And Japanese leaders have gone to great lengths to build personal friendships with U.S. presidents. Recently and famously, for example, Shinzo Abe bonded with Donald Trump over wagyu burgers, sumo wrestling and golf in Tokyo.

So whoever replaces Suga is going to have to start from scratch in bonding with President Biden. As for Biden, he is counting on help from Japan with most of his Asia priorities, top among which is, you know, meeting China's challenge to U.S. primacy in Asia. So it is just not a good time for the U.S. to call Tokyo and find them consumed by domestic politics.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn reporting from Seoul. Anthony, thanks.

KUHN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.