The World

Japan’s New Prime Minister Continues a Troubling Trend

In the COVID era, Japan is embracing centralization, control, and secrecy.

A masked Suga enters parliament surrounded by aides.
Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, wearing a face mask, arrives at an extraordinary session of the lower house at parliament to deliver his first policy speech in Tokyo on October 26, 2020. KAZUHIRO NOGI/Getty Images

Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, faced his first real adversity just a few weeks after his term began on Sept. 14.

Suga made the seemingly minor move of rejecting six scholars that had been nominated as new members of the Science Council of Japan, an independent organization that represents Japan’s scientific community and makes policy recommendations to the government. The six professors who were not appointed—all accomplished professors at some of Japan’s most renowned universities—had one thing in common: they had criticized controversial security legislation and organized crime law revisions that were passed in 2017.

Few in Japan knew of or cared about the Science Council until this news broke, but it was immediately met with fierce outcry by the opposition political parties, a round of protests in Tokyo, and a wave of confusion and even fear from academics across the country.

Throw in the ongoing pandemic, Suga’s pledge to make Japan carbon-neutral by 2050, and fears of academic espionage by Chinese researchers, and there could not be a worse time to threaten Japan’s premier scientific organization, which is tasked with advising the government on its long-term strategy for COVID-19.

After taking over from Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-tenured prime minister, who stepped down due to health issues last month, Suga was tasked largely with tackling coronavirus while also continuing to implement Abe’s political agenda. While analysts note that Suga is a very different politician and leader than Abe, the recent Science Council incident suggests that he is following his predecessor’s example by increasing centralization, control, and secrecy, while threatening academic freedom and freedom of the press.

“This trend may not be particular to Japan, given the worldwide polarization of social media and the internet environment,” says Masaru Kohno, professor of political science at Waseda University. “But many think that these trends will continue—and that Suga is behind this movement even more so than Abe.”

The Abe administration and Liberal Democratic Party have taken multiple steps in the past to threaten the power of academics, including attempting to discredit scientists during the debate over new secrecy and security legislation in 2015, exclude faculty from the selection of university presidents, and eliminate humanities and social science departments.

“People feel pressure to not criticize the government in academia and journalism,” says Yu Uchiyama, professor of political science at the University of Tokyo. “If important professors don’t get hired, or can’t receive research funding, that’s terrifying.” Since many of Japan’s major universities are government-funded, academics fear that they will be coerced into avoiding criticizing the government in order to receive funding.

Suga did not disclose the reasons for rejecting the scholars. He later dodged responsibility, saying that he accepted the candidates as they were presented to him, suggesting that the candidates had been removed earlier in the bureaucratic process. But sources told the Japan Times that Suga was aware of the six names before they were excluded.

Kyoto University present Juichi Yamagiwa, the previous head of the council, stated at the council’s meeting in Tokyo that “the appointment refusals without any explanation will greatly affect the council’s existence.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato responded by saying that “selections of individuals… are related to personnel affairs. This will not immediately lead to a violation of academic freedom.”

But Suga has given no further explanation, and not much more debate has been had on the topic, since he departed for a trip to Vietnam and Indonesia. Japan’s parliament resumed debate on Oct. 26, with experts expecting the opposition to begin aggressive questioning on the topic.

“I think this incident is a sign of the Suga administration being inhospitable to criticism, and trying to stifle opposing views,” says Nobuo Gohara, Tokyo-based a compliance lawyer who wrote about the topic for Yahoo Japan.

The problem is wider than academia. Abe took unprecedented steps in discriminating against newspapers and TV stations, sticking to his chosen stations, and favoring certain journalists and journalistic groups.

Journalist Martin Fackler wrote about these trends in Foreign Policy in 2016 after three of the country’s most outspoken television anchors were simultaneously removed.

“In the Abe era, major Japanese media were eager participants in their own self-censorship, silencing themselves in order to stay in the good graces of Abe administration officials,” Fackler says. “This was orchestrated behind the scenes by Suga, who used a carrot-and-stick approach of rewarding cooperative outlets with access. In the public realm, self-censorship was enforced by verbal attacks and intimidation from the so-called Net Right, a loose-knit community of shrilly nationalistic netizens whom some members of the Abe government openly embraced.”

Other trends under Abe included the centralization of personnel decisions into the hand of the cabinet—led by Suga—and secrecy in terms of not disclosing public records, delaying and obstructing the transparent process of government and information dissemination.

The prime minister’s increased control over bureaucrats has also concerned some experts. “Bureaucrats are losing the ability to advise the government, and cannot say ‘no’ to the administration,” says Uchiyama.

“Abe for sure had a pattern,” says Kohno. “It’s too early to tell whether Suga will inherit this pattern because it’s one incident.”

On a superficial level, the two prime ministers couldn’t be more different. Unlike Abe, whose grandfather was a prime minister, Suga is the son of a farmer. He served in city government, the Lower House of the Diet, and eventually was tapped by Abe to become chief cabinet secretary. Initially Suga was an outlier candidate, but quickly rose in popularity and saw approval rating of over 65 percent when he was elected by his party.

“Suga is all about the details,” says Tobias Harris, author of a biography of Abe, The Iconoclast. “He likes control—he likes to be able to decide what the course of the government is going to be. Abe’s superpower as a politician was to build these elaborate visions and try to imagine the future. That’s not Suga at all–he’s someone to deal with the concrete, the tangible. That’s not necessarily going to be off-putting to voters.”

Suga’s first few ‘honeymoon’ weeks in office were smooth sailing. He put forward a new policy that reduces cell phone fees in Japan by 40 percent, plans to establish a digital agency, and announced that Japan will go carbon neutral by 2050, all popular and positive measures. “Since [the Science Council issue] was his first incident, the opposition that was waiting and searching for a weakness jumped on it,” says Kohno.

According to the U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, Suga’s main policy priorities include combating the coronavirus, revitalizing economic growth, and promoting regulatory reform, where Suga has a strong track record of success in areas such as tourism. In terms of foreign policy, his agenda is expected to align with Abe’s, which emphasized alliances with the U.S. and democracies in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as deterring the threat of North Korea and China in the East China Sea.

“The initial numbers of Suga tell you a whole lot,” says Harris. “Part of the reason for Abe’s durability and Suga’s initial favorable reception is that the public’s appetite for change is currently low. Abe was constantly fending off scandal allegations, and yet his approval ratings held up. Post-2016, I think the public came to appreciate the stability Abe brought, given how uncertain the world outside of Japan looked.”

COVID-19, contained but not controlled in Japan, may have led to a further desire for political stability. Controversial moves for control may disrupt the Suga government’s ability to respond effectively with spurts of unnecessary debate and distraction.

With Japan’s opposition weaker than ever, power increasingly centralized in the cabinet, and the consistent political success by the Liberal Democratic Party, Suga occupies a very strong place in the Japanese government. But the Science Council incident represents a continuing trend of stifling dissent in academia, the media, and the government bureaucracy that could threaten both Suga’s regime as well as liberalism in Japan.