TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has drawn criticism for joining year-end get-togethers after begging the public to avoid parties as the country grapples with record numbers of coronavirus cases.
Suga became prime minister in September but he has not enjoyed much of a honeymoon as public frustration grows with rising coronavirus infections and several wrangles that have begun to raise questions about how long he might keep the job.
Despite warning the public to shun big gatherings, Suga has attended several over the past week, stirring criticism on social media and from politicians, including from allies in his coalition.
“While asking people for self-restraint, they’re eating high-end steaks and living it up,” opposition member of parliament Jun Azumi told reporters, referring to a Monday dinner at a top Tokyo steak house that Suga attended.
“Public support can collapse,” Azumi said.
One of those who attended the dinner, 76-year-old actor Ryotaro Sugi, told reporters outside the restaurant it was a “year-end party” and they had discussed baseball.
Suga has not explained the steak dinner, one of several gatherings he joined recently, but government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said the government took seriously criticism that Suga’s activities had “caused misunderstanding” among the public.
“It is important to make individual decisions based on a balance between the purposes of group meals and infection control measures,” Kato told a regular news conference.
More worrying for the prime minister might be veiled criticism from the ruling party’s junior partner, Komeito, with their relations already under pressure over a dispute about medical bills for the elderly.
“The prime minister’s schedule sends a message to the people, so I’d like to see due consideration,” said Komeito party leader Natsuo Yamaguchi.
A source close to Komeito was more blunt: “There’s a growing chasm,” between the parties, the source, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.
The prime minister this week was forced to make a U-turn over a government travel subsidy programme aimed at supporting domestic tourism and helping small businesses that he had long defended.
Critics have blamed the programme for encouraging travel that has helped spread the coronavirus around Japan. Suga suspended it over the year-end holidays.