TOKYO — It's a struggle that Americans will recognize — a national leader desperately focused on the economy against a governor whose popularity has soared with attempts to bring the coronavirus under control.
Japan has its own version. Playing the role of President Trump is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whom critics accuse of dithering in the face of the virus threat in a mistaken attempt to evade economic pain.
The part of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) is played by Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, who has battled for a much more resolute response to the threat of covid-19. Koike’s daily video briefings, clear messaging and approachable style have enhanced her reputation.
Tension started to mount in March as the virus found a foothold in Tokyo and Koike began talking about the need for a possible lockdown. On April 7, Abe declared a state of emergency covering Tokyo and six other prefectures but pointedly emphasized it was “not a lockdown.”
The struggle only intensified. Koike wanted to issue a wide-ranging request for businesses to close. Abe’s virus point man, Yasutoshi Nishimura, wanted a two-week delay. Koike eventually issued the closure request, but was forced to allow many businesses, from barbers to bars, to remain open.
Her frustration boiled over as she complained that “various voices from heaven” had made her feel like a “middle manager.” The remark, a clear jab at Abe’s administration, surged across social media.
And while Abe and his team have consistently stressed the need to limit the damage to the economy in any package of measures to contain the virus, Koike has stressed the overriding need “to protect the lives of the people of Tokyo.”
She has used flip charts, banners with simple phrases such as “severe risk.” She even gave an interview with a popular YouTuber, who goes by the single name Hikakin, to drive the point home with much more clarity than Abe could muster.
“Her policies have been very clear, and her ability to communicate in clear-cut messages have proved an asset,” said Yu Uchiyama, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo who drew parallels between Koike and Cuomo and contrasted her proactive style with Abe’s apparent lack of urgency.
Her warning to reporters to keep their distance — “That’s too close, that’s too close” — are well known and spawned a social distancing smartphone game. Her elegant face masks, in pastel patterns, also have won her fans.
A poll conducted in mid-April by Sankei and Fuji News Network showed support for Tokyo’s stronger set of measures against the virus stood at 74 percent, while support for the central government’s milder approach was at 12.5 percent. Two out of three people disapproved of the central government’s overall response to the virus, and separate polls showed Abe’s popularity falling.
“Her frequent no-nonsense, tough-love briefings to stay home and shut down had an impact,” said Jeff Kingston, a political science professor at Temple University Japan.
“In contrast to Koike’s bold and reassuring leadership, Abe resembled Hamlet, wavering indecisively for too long before declaring a national emergency,” he added.
She served as defense minister during his first term in office in 2007 but lasted only 54 days before resigning. After failing in a subsequent bid for the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party, she won election as Tokyo’s governor without the party’s backing — and then split to form her own party.
“Lately, she is making comments that suggests she is speaking not just as the governor and to the people of Tokyo but to the people of Japan,” Uchiyama said. “It is conceivable now for her to become a candidate for the prime minister’s role.”
Abe, though, has suffered not only in comparison with Koike, and she is not the only regional leader who has spoken out against the center.
Across the country, a new breed of independent and sometimes younger politicians is emerging to challenge the dominance of the ruling LDP’s elite. Switched on to their voters, they have made the central government look out-of-touch and incapable.
Yoshinobu Nisaka, the independent governor of the southwestern region of Wakayama, defied central-government protocols to launch an aggressive testing and tracing strategy to quash a virus cluster in February, an approach that became known as the “Wakayama model.”
In northern Japan, the popularity of Hokkaido’s 39-year-old governor, Naomichi Suzuki, soared after he moved decisively to declare a state of emergency in late February ahead of the central government, while Osaka’s 44-year-old leader, Hirofumi Yoshimura, complaining of a lack of clear directions, has designed his own strategy for tackling the virus, being called the “Osaka model.”
Abe’s government has responded by blaming prefectures for a delay in ramping up Japan’s low rate of coronavirus testing, but the excuses do not convince many people.
In the end, Abe’s efforts to avoid economic damage have only prolonged the pain. While Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong have made major strides to control the virus and reopened society, Abe was forced last week to extend Japan’s state of emergency until the end of May.
But political analyst Atsuo Ito sees a possible silver lining, in a dynamic that could breathe life into Japan’s sclerotic democracy.
“Until now, the relationship between central and local governments has been one of master and servant,” he said. “But local governments are closer to the people, and as such they have to respond immediately. What we are seeing now is that for issues that require an urgent response, local governments can act first and the central government has to follow on, even if reluctantly.”