Japan’s next Prime Minister emerges from behind the curtain

By Motoko Rich and Makiko Inque

Yoshihide Suga has charted an unlikely course to the cusp of Japan’s premiership.

While most leading Japanese lawmakers come from elite political families, Suga is the son of a strawberry farmer and a schoolteacher from the country’s rural north. He’s known more for his expressionless recitations of government policy than any flashes of charisma. At 71, he’s even older than Shinzo Abe, who suddenly announced in late August that he was resigning as prime minister because of ill health.

Yet Suga, the longtime chief Cabinet secretary to Abe, should have little trouble sliding into the job. He has vowed to pick up from where Abe left off, a gesture that reassured the nation after a string of revolving-door prime ministers. And in Japan, where stability often outweighs ideology, Suga appealed to a tradition-bound political establishment that resists change.

On Monday, Suga swept an election for the leadership of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party — which has governed Japan for all but four years since World War II — all but assuring that he will become prime minister after a vote in Parliament in the coming days.

Whether he ends up a caretaker leader or stays after a general election is likely to depend on his response to Japan’s immediate economic and geopolitical challenges. But for now, in quickly locking up what had initially seemed a wide-open contest, he has demonstrated the behind-the-scenes political skills he had honed while serving Abe for nearly eight years.

“How quickly the talk coalesced toward Suga,” said Mireya Solis, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, “shows his political acumen.”

His role as a shadow power in Japanese politics, however, has rendered him a bit of a cipher.

In many ways, he seems like yet another in a long line of dour Japanese politicians. The most exciting nugget to emerge in recent news reports is the revelation that Suga, a teetotaler with a sweet tooth, starts and ends each day with 100 situps. On his website he says he likes river fishing and karate.

More substantively, it has been difficult to discern Suga’s vision for Japan or whether he could muster fresh solutions for the country’s entrenched issues.

“Generally, politicians have at least a facade of expressing ideals,” said Megumi Naoi, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, who said she would usually expect “policy statements about the ‘type of world that I want to see.’ ”

Despite nearly a quarter century in national politics, Suga, who serves essentially as Abe’s chief of staff and main government spokesman, “hasn’t really come out with very strong policies,” Naoi said.

Reflecting his years as Abe’s loyal adviser, Suga, who declined a request for an interview, has promised to pursue some of the departing prime minister’s most cherished goals. He is expected to continue to push for a revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution and the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea.

He has also said he would roughly stick to Abe’s signature economic formula, known as Abenomics, combining easy monetary policy, government spending and structural reform of industries such as agriculture.

When Suga showed a tiny sign of staking out a new policy last week — a potential increase in a tax that has hampered consumer spending — he quickly backtracked.

With global turbulence from the coronavirus pandemic and rising geopolitical threats in Asia, a successor who stays the course may be just what Japan needs.

“Japan is not a country with revolutionary reform taking place very often,” said Christina Davis, director of the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at Harvard. “Especially in times of crisis and uncertainty, being seen as a stable crisis manager could be an asset.”

Even as he epitomizes the status quo, Suga has also been a catalyst for significant change. He is credited with helping Abe push through contentious security laws that allow Japan’s military to join overseas combat missions alongside allies. Suga was also considered a strong proponent of a bill, passed two years ago, authorizing a sharp increase in the number of foreign workers permitted in Japan.

Other glimpses of his political hand have yielded concerns. Some critics say Suga was the architect behind some of Abe’s more authoritarian impulses, including his consolidation of power over Japan’s sprawling bureaucracy and the use of tactics to silence criticism in the news media.

“I think Suga is more dangerous than Abe,” Kihei Maekawa, a former vice education minister, told The Sunday Mainichi, a weekly magazine.

With Suga as prime minister, Maekawa predicted, “bureaucrats will be servants or act as a private military” under the prime minister’s office, “worse than in the Abe era.”

One major question, which arose as soon as Suga become the front-runner, is just how long he will last. The answer may be determined by his handling of the pandemic, the postponed Tokyo Olympics and increasing tensions with China.

There are rumors that Suga could call a snap election soon after he takes over the prime ministership. If successful, he could consolidate his popularity. If not, “maybe this is just an interim leader,” said Ken Hijino, a professor of law at Kyoto University, “and they will come up with some surprise younger, more attractive face to go into the general election.”

For now, the public supports Suga, with more than 50% of those surveyed in a national poll last week backing him to be prime minister.

While Japanese voters see Suga and Abe as something of a pair, their family backgrounds could hardly be more different. Abe is a third-generation politician and the grandson of a prime minister; Suga had an unremarkable upbringing in rural Akita prefecture, along with two older sisters and a younger brother.

According to a biography by Isao Mori, Suga’s father suggested he work on the family farm, but Suga decided to move to Tokyo. He took odd jobs, first with a cardboard company and then driving turret trucks at the old Tsukiji fish market, before enrolling at Hosei University.

When he decided to pursue politics, absent family connections, he asked the career services center for an introduction to a member of Parliament.

In 1975, Suga took a job as secretary to Hikosaburo Okonogi, a member of the House of Representatives from Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city. Suga’s duties included buying cigarettes and parking cars.

In 1987, he ran for a seat on the City Council in Yokohama, where he became known as a “shadow” Yokohama mayor. He helped develop transportation links to the port and pushed to lower waiting lists at city day care centers.

“He has four eyes and four ears,” Koichi Fujishiro, a former chairman of the Yokohama City Council, said in a telephone interview. “He worked from morning to late at night.”

In 1996, Suga made the leap to national politics, winning a seat in the lower house of Parliament. During Abe’s first, fumbling stint as prime minister, from 2006 to 2007, Suga served as minister of internal affairs and telecommunications. Even after Abe left office following a series of scandals, Suga remained loyal.

Abe rewarded that loyalty when he came back as prime minister in 2012 and chose Suga as his chief Cabinet secretary. According to Kenya Matsuda, author of “Shadow Power: Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga,” Suga urged Abe to focus on the economy rather than the nationalist agenda that had consumed his first term.

On foreign policy, Suga has worked to fill holes in his portfolio. He visited Washington last year, the first chief Cabinet secretary to make such a trip in three decades.

For Abe, personal diplomacy with President Donald Trump has been crucial. If Trump wins reelection, the question, said Solis, of the Brookings Institution, “is whether Suga can work the magic or whether that was a bromance between Trump and Abe not to be repeated again.”

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