The week in things – my take on Suga, Rahm, and fast trains

To help get me back in the swing of writing and following stories I care about, I am going to try a semi-regular post rounding up some of the thoughts I’ve had over the week, and try when I can to offer some niche topic I’m following that other might not be as aware of. Read on for the pilot issue!

This week’s stories:

  •   Suga’s job appears safe despite because, well, would YOU want to be prime minister right now?
  • Take of the week – Is Rahm Emmanuel the wrong pick as Ambassador to Japan? No, he’s perfect (for me, who looks forward to laughing at him)
  •   Parting shot – A tragically beautiful documentary on how Japan’s first bullet train was built

Nobody wants Suga’s job – who would?

Japan is approaching 12,000 Covid deaths, and although any death is too much, it’s nonetheless a number that so many major countries would kill to have. By the time this thing is over, the US might have more than 600,000. Yikes!

Yet the public at large has scorned the Suga government’s handling of the pandemic (especially for the slow vaccine rollout) as well as his apparent insistence on holding the Olympics this summer come hell or high water.

It just goes to show that the way a leader is judged is completely relative to expectations. I’m reminded of this tweet from late in the 2020 election:

Despite all this, from my standpoint Suga’s job appears to be safe for now, and he may even end up surviving the fall with the public giving him a second chance. Why would I say that?

First off, even with this slow start, vaccines are eventually going to pick up and will really do so come fall. The government has already set a target of fully vaccinating the 65-plus population by the end of July, which seems doable despite the logistical issues (e.g., requiring physicians to administer the shots, something few other major countries are doing. This is just one example where a major country has not had the political will to upend the status quo even in the face of a devastating pandemic…). As we’ve seen in the U.S.

This Nikkei chart shows how vaccines supply went from minuscule amounts through mid-April to more than 15 million every two weeks through May, and supplies are picking up. 

And the number of people getting vaccinated has shot up too, now covering more than 4% who have received at least one dose:

Eventually, vaccination progress will lead to reduced cases and give the vaccinated confidence to go back to living their normal lives. And it should translate into a positive for Suga’s approval rating (absent other factors, of course).

Second, the decision on the Olympics is inherently no-win – hold them and risk triggering the highest-profile superspreader event of all time, and even if that doesn’t happen the Japanese public will resent the government for allowing the athletes and staff to receive vaccines before the general public.Cancel them, and you incur the wrath of all the industries and interest groups who stand to lose money on the investments they made premised on having the Olympics (some are looking at truly devastating losses), and to boot it will damage Japan’s image on the world stage (if you care about that sort of thing). Suga negotiated pro-Tokyo Olympics statements in both the recent G7 leaders’ and US-Japan summit, but in both cases they’re carefully worded so that the responsibility for holding a safe and secure Games decision remains completely in Japan’s court, so to speak.

All signs point to Japan powering through and holding the Games. But whichever the case, by the time Suga is up for reelection as LDP president in September the Olympics will be in the rear-view mirror, whether they take place or not.

Finally, and most importantly, no one wants the Prime Minister’s job, at least not now. Suga has been dealt a very crappy hand, and he certainly deserves some blame. But precisely because the situation looks so bad, there hasn’t been anyone within the LDP expressing a lack of confidence or (afaik) actively exploring ways to challenge Suga in the fall. Of course that could change if the overall environment improves, but every day people sit on the sidelines is a good day for Suga. Right now none of the people who might gun for it (Shinjiro Koizumi, Taro Kono, Shigeru Ishiba, Fumio Kishida, etc.) are in a position to do so, and the opposition parties still have not managed to capitalize on what seems to be a real weakness in the ruling coalition.

So I would count as slim to none their chances of winning the lower house election that must be called by October (famous last words!).

Quick closing note: The major opposition party has never managed to consistent crack 10 percent public support since Abe came into office in 2012; in NHK’s most recent poll 33.7% supports the LDP and just 5.8% supported the Constitutional Democrats; the largest bloc of voters by far is “do not support any party” at 43% which adds an element of uncertainty to the upcoming Lower House election).

Take of the week – Is Rahm Emmanuel a mistake as Ambassador to Japan?

I’ve been bemused at the idea of appointing Rahm Emmanuel as Ambassador to Japan, as has been widely reported Biden will do.

First off, what an insult to the groups who fought him during his stint as mayor where he covered up after a police shooting. I’m no veteran, but I certainly have never heard of a 20-group coalition forming to vigorously oppose an ambassador appointment. The group’s statement is worth reading in full to see how thoroughly they’re dunking on him. It almost looks like they’re having fun taking turns having a go:

National NAACP President Derrick Johnson said: “As the former mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel has shown us that he is not a principled leader or person. His time in public service proved to be burdened with preventable scandal and abandonment of Chicago’s most vulnerable community.”

Let’s hope Rahm will bring that kind of energy to his time in Japan!

Clearly, I don’t think Rahm should be the ambassador – hell he shouldn’t even be allowed to manage a McDonald’s.

But part of me wants him to get in there… I mean, how funny will it be when the Ambassador tells Taro Aso to shut the fuck up before he even knows who he is, only for the incident to leak via an anonymous Japanese government source?

Rahm is famous for throwing principle out the window to get a deal done (see his willingness to cut social security to secure a “grand bargain” under Obama). Would he go off the reservation and persuade Japan to move Futenma Air Base to the Senkaku Islands? The only way to find out is to send Rahm to Tokyo.

Well, that’s all for now. Until next week?

Parting shot: This documentary makes me weep for all bullet trains the US never built:

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