Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Political Houdini, Can’t Escape Coronavirus Backlash

“This is a structural problem of the Abe administration,” he added.

The coronavirus has presented a serious test for many world leaders, including President Trump, who is trying to repel criticism of his government’s initial response as he faces a re-election campaign.

For Mr. Abe, though, the very consolidation of power that seems to have hampered the official reaction to the virus may ultimately keep him firmly in place, no matter how much the public sours on him. Japan’s political opposition has fallen into disarray and its news media has grown ever more deferential, leaving a widespread feeling in the country that there is no alternative to the sitting prime minister.

“There just isn’t anyone to direct the government in the way that he has,” said Brad Glosserman, an expert on Japanese politics at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University in Tokyo.

“There is no credible alternative in the opposition at this point, so the Japanese people are sticking with the devil they know,” Mr. Glosserman added, noting that the situation had created “a feeling that democracy is not really working.”

The coronavirus has endangered not just public health, but also major aspects of Mr. Abe’s legacy projects. Japan’s economy, which he had led out of nearly two decades in the doldrums, is on the brink of recession. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, on Thursday postponed a highly anticipated visit, the first by the country’s Communist Party chief in over a decade. And talk of calling off the Summer Olympics in Tokyo grows by the day.

It’s an abrupt comedown. Until now, Mr. Abe, 65, “has led a charmed life,” said Michael Cucek, an assistant professor of political science at Temple University Japan.

Mr. Abe has skated past several political scandals that would have wiped out most other politicians in Japan, where even seemingly insignificant improprieties, like giving potatoes to constituents, can end in resignation.

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