Japan is not rallying around its prime minister

May 21, 2020

SINCE JAPAN recorded its first case of covid-19 on January 16th, 784 people have died across the country of 126m, fewer deaths than in one day in New York City during the peak of the outbreak there. On May 14th the government lifted the state of emergency in 39 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, with more likely to be released this week. In terms of deaths relative to population, Japan ranks alongside South Korea, whose government has been widely praised for its management of the pandemic.

Yet when it comes to public opinion, Abe Shinzo, Japan’s prime minister, has been one of a small handful of world leaders to see his approval ratings drop, alongside covid-deniers like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. Polls show that more than half of the Japanese public disapproves of the government’s handling of the virus. Limited testing, shortages of protective gear for medical workers, the botched handling of a super-spreading cruise ship and hesitation to impose a state of emergency have fuelled frustration and distrust. “Citizens and the private sector were far ahead of the government,” says Nakabayashi Mieko, a former opposition MP. On May 19th Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK, found that more people disapproved than approved of Mr Abe’s government (see chart).

Mr Abe has cultivated the image of himself as a strong leader. But faced with...

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