Yoshihide Suga Set to Become Japan’s Next Prime Minister

TOKYO — There are few true surprises in Japanese politics, but the rise of Yoshihide Suga to become the next prime minister was not exactly preordained.

The son of a strawberry farmer and a schoolteacher from rural northern Japan, Mr. Suga is one of the few leading Japanese lawmakers not from an elite political family. Charisma is not the first — or even the second or third — word evoked by his public persona. 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.

What Mr. Suga, the longtime chief cabinet secretary to Mr. Abe, does offer is continuity. He vowed to pick up from where Mr. 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, Mr. Suga appealed to a tradition-bound political establishment that resists change.

On Monday, Mr. 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 — assuring him the prime ministership.

With his decisive victory in a party contest that initially seemed wide open, Mr. Suga demonstrated deft political skills honed as a behind-the-scenes operator, serving essentially as Mr. Abe’s chief of staff and main government spokesman 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.”

But his role as a shadow power in Japanese politics 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Suga’s vision for Japan, or whether he could muster fresh solutions for the country’s deep challenges.

“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, Mr. Suga “hasn’t really come out with very strong policies,” Ms. Naoi said.

Reflecting his years as Mr. Abe’s loyal adviser, Mr. 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 Mr. Abe’s signature economic formula, known as Abenomics, combining easy monetary policy, government spending and structural reform of industries such as agriculture.

When Mr. 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 L. 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, Mr. Suga has also been a catalyst for significant change. He is credited with helping Mr. Abe push through contentious security laws that allow Japan’s military to join overseas combat missions alongside allies. Mr. 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 Mr. Suga was the architect behind some of Mr. 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 Mr. Suga is more dangerous than Mr. Abe,” Kihei Maekawa, a former vice education minister, told The Sunday Mainichi, a weekly magazine.

With Mr. Suga as prime minister, Mr. 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 is just how long Mr. Suga will last. Whether he ends up a caretaker leader or stays after a general election is likely to depend on his response to immediate challenges like the pandemic, the postponed Tokyo Olympics and increasing tensions with China.

There are rumors that Mr. 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 Mr. Suga, with more than 50 percent of those surveyed in a national poll last week backing him to be prime minister.

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

“He was so quiet that no one paid attention to him,” said Hiroshi Kawai, a high school classmate who now works as a tour guide in Mr. Suga’s hometown, Yuzawa City.

“We have such proverbs as ‘great talents are slow to mature’ and ‘a wise falcon hides its talons,’” Mr. Kawai said in a telephone interview. “Now, I realized that those words were created for Mr. Suga.”

According to a biography by Isao Mori, Mr. Suga’s father suggested he work on the family farm, but Mr. 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, Mr. Suga took a job as secretary to Hikosaburo Okonogi, a member of the House of Representatives from Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city. Mr. Suga’s duties included buying cigarettes and parking cars.

He also quickly learned how to cater to a constituency. At Mr. Suga’s wedding to his wife, Mariko, in 1980, according to Mr. Mori’s biography, a supporter of Mr. Okonogi said he had bought shoes for Mr. Suga because he “quickly wore them down” going door to door to visit voters in the district.

The Sugas had three sons, but in a debate last week, Mr. Suga admitted that he was rarely home as they were growing up.

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

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

Last year, Mr. Suga took some steps to come out of the shadows. When the government officially unveiled the name of the new era marking the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito, it was Mr. Suga who dramatically revealed a calligraphic rendering of the name, Reiwa, earning him the sobriquet “Uncle Reiwa.”

Mr. Suga has also trumpeted his brainchild, a system that allows citizens to donate money to local governments in exchange for locally sourced gifts. Many small-town governments, however, have lost money by spending more on gifts like marbled Wagyu beef or shipments of fresh lobsters than they raised in donations.

On foreign policy, Mr. 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 Mr. Abe, personal diplomacy with President Trump has been crucial. If Mr. Trump wins re-election, the question, said Ms. 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.”

Hikari Hida and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.

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