It apparently rubbed many people frustrated by Abe’s handling of the crisis the wrong way. Abe, like U.S. President Donald Trump, has faced accusations his moves to counter the coronavirus were too little, too late. Until late March, Abe’s administration was still insisting the Tokyo Olympics would go ahead as planned in July. It’s now been postponed until July 2021.
Abe declared a month-long state of emergency in Tokyo and six other prefectures deemed at highest risk of an explosion of coronavirus infections just last Tuesday. The government asked people in those areas — later expanded to all of Japan — to stay at home.
But the “stay home” message has incensed many who note that most Japanese cannot remain at home because the government’s social distancing policy is voluntary and doesn’t come with compensation for cash-strapped workers.
The video posted on Twitter, on a split screen accompanied by a guitar-playing popular singer, shows Abe sitting at home looking bored. Abe reading a book. Abe cuddling his dog, sipping from a cup and flipping channels with a remote.
“You cannot see your friends or organize drinking parties, but your actions are surely saving many lives," says the video’s written message. “Everyone please cooperate.” The sight of Abe, heir to a wealthy political dynasty, in such genteel surroundings hasn’t resonated well with families being asked to stay cooped up in cramped apartments and with workers still having to commute, since many Japanese companies have been slow to switch to remote work. Some people have lost their jobs or had their salaries cut.
“An elegant tweet despite a national crisis,” blared a headline in the Nikkan Sports tabloid. “Abe the aristocrat!!” Many on Twitter mocked Abe with their own satirical versions of his poses, including one person who did so in the nude with “stay home” messages written in marker on his bare chest and tummy, his privates camouflaged with props including a Chinese lion dance head he cuddled as if it was a pet.
“Who does he think he is?” said one commentator. “He is so out of touch.” "It was an extremely visual way of understanding the prime minister’s lack of awareness, and I’m just appalled,” tweeted Takanori Fujita, a professor at Seigakuin University who runs a non-profit support group for the homeless, jobless or others in financial difficulties.
Abe’s April 1 announcement that the government would deliver just one pair of old-fashioned gauze masks to each of Japan’s 50 million households was received with disbelief by some who thought it was an April Fools’ Day joke.
Abe, who took office for a second time in December 2012, has survived numerous scandals to become Japan’s longest-serving post-World War II prime minister. Local leaders are pushing him to be more pro-active in fighting the pandemic. Leading the pack is Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has been holding daily updates, hers on YouTube.
The tug of war between Abe and Koike is more low key than the occasional New York-style sparring between Trump and Cuomo, whose state has been ravaged by the pandemic. The dynamics, also, are somewhat different. In general, Koike shares the same nationalist, conservative policy stance as Abe.
But like Cuomo, Koike is articulate and to the point. She does not stray from facts, and she has one mission: to protect Tokyo. At this point, “everyone seems to think that what Ms. Koike says makes more sense … compared to Mr. Abe who is far off the mark,” said Koichi Nakano, a Sophia University international politics professor.
A survey by public broadcaster NHK released Monday showed 75% of respondents said Abe was too slow in declaring a state of emergency. The day after Abe announced the Olympics postponement, Koike raised the alarm over surging cases in the capital, which accounts for about a fifth of all Japanese business activity and is the hub of a wider metropolitan area that is home to about a third of all Japanese.
As of Sunday, Japan had 114 coronavirus deaths and 7,255 confirmed cases, not including 712 from a cruise ship that was quarantined near Tokyo for weeks. Tokyo prefecture alone has a total of 2,068 cases.
Koike, who is facing a July election, successfully lobbied Abe's government to allow Tokyo's shutdown requests to include nightclubs, pachinko parlors, game centers and internet cafes — all considered likely hot spots for spreading the virus. She didn’t win a concession on shutting barber shops and beauty salons. “Izakaya” Japanese-style pubs are merely being asked to close at 8 p.m. instead of in the wee hours.
Wary of the likely damage to the economy, Abe and other leaders have resisted closures, asking local leaders to wait two weeks before deciding whether to call for shutdowns of nonessential businesses. Koike went ahead with the closures beginning Saturday, promising to pay small businesses up to 1 million yen ($9,200).
Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi