Can embattled Japan PM Suga break the post-Olympics jinx?

TOKYO – Japan had hosted the Olympics three times before Tokyo 2020, and all three times ended with the prime minister’s resignation within the same year.

While they stepped down for different reasons, the pattern has raised the spectre in Japan’s political nerve centre Nagatacho of the same fate for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Mr Suga’s Cabinet approval has plunged to new lows, complicating his bid for re-election in an internal Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) poll next month to choose its party chief. The Lower House of Parliament must also be dissolved by Oct 21 for a general election.

If history serves as a guide – even if grounded in superstition – Mr Suga will have cause for concern.

Tokyo hosted the 1964 Summer Games, while Sapporo held the 1972 Winter Games, and Nagano, the 1998 Winter Games.

In 1964, cancer-stricken Hayato Ikeda held onto his leadership role to see out the Olympic Games, resigning one day after the closing ceremony on Oct 25 to focus on his recovery.

He passed the baton to Mr Eisaku Sato, who would likewise resign in July 1972, five months after the Sapporo Games. His unprecedentedly long tenure at the time – seven years and eight months – had fostered discontent within the LDP and among the public, though he waited until after the United States returned Okinawa to Japan in May that year to step down.

In 1998, Mr Ryutaro Hashimoto resigned months after the Nagano Games. This came after the LDP suffered a crushing defeat in the Upper House election in July, due to deeply unpopular fiscal policies including a consumption tax hike from 3 per cent to 5 per cent in 1997.

Dr Mikitaka Masuyama, who teaches political science at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, told The Straits Times: “It was a coincidence that the alterations of prime ministers occurred after the Olympics.”

He felt that Mr Suga might break the jinx. LDP bigwigs have backed Mr Suga’s re-election, while Dr Masuyama believes the fractured opposition means that a majority for the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito is within reach.

“If the LDP presidential election precedes the general election and the ruling alliance maintains a majority in the Lower House, the Suga administration will likely continue,” he said.

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