TOKYO – There are few real surprises in Japanese politics, but Yoshihide Suga’s rise to become the next prime minister wasn’t exactly foreordained.
The son of a strawberry farmer and teacher from rural northern Japan, Mr. Suga is one of the few prominent Japanese lawmakers not from an elite political family. Charisma is not the first – or even the second or third – word evoked by his public figure. At 71, he is even older than Shinzo Abe, who suddenly announced in late August that he would be stepping down as prime minister due to health problems.
On Monday, Mr. Suga swept away the elections for the leadership of the Conservative Liberal Democratic Party – which has ruled Japan for all but four years since World War II – by securing him prime minister.
With his decisive victory in a party contest he initially seemed openly, Mr. Suga has demonstrated deft political skills honed as a behind-the-scenes operator, essentially serving as Mr. Abe’s chief of staff and prime government spokesman for nearly eight years.
“The rapidity with which the speech focused on Suga,” said Mireya Solis, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, “shows his political acumen.”
But its role as a shadow power in Japanese politics has made it somewhat encrypted.
In many ways, it seems like yet another in a long line of stern Japanese politicians. The most exciting nugget to emerge from recent news is the revelation that Mr. Suga, a teetotaler with a sweet tooth, starts and ends every day with 100 sit-ups. On his website he says he likes river fishing and karate.
More fundamentally, it was difficult to discern Mr. Suga’s vision for Japan, or whether he could muster new solutions to the country’s profound challenges.
“Generally, politicians have at least a facade of expressing ideals,” he said Megumi Naoi, associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, who said he usually expects “political statements about” the kind of world I want to see “.
Despite nearly a quarter of a century in national politics, Mr. Suga “hasn’t come out with very strong policies,” Ms. Naoi said.
Reflecting on his years as Mr. Abe’s loyal advisor, Mr. Suga, who declined an interview request, vowed to pursue some of the outgoing prime minister’s most cherished goals. He is expected to continue to push for a revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution and for the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea.
He also said he will more or less stick to Mr. Abe, known as Abenomics, which combines easy monetary policy, public spending and structural reform of industries such as agriculture.
When Mr. Suga last week showed little sign of putting a new policy in place – a potential tax hike that hindered consumer spending – he quickly backed off.
With the global turbulence of the coronavirus pandemic and growing geopolitical threats in Asia, a successor that stays on course may be just what Japan needs.
“Japan is not a country with revolutionary reforms that happen very often,” he said Christina L. Davis, director of the US-Japan Relations Program at Harvard. “Especially in times of crisis and uncertainty, being seen as a stable crisis manager could be an asset.”
While he embodies the status quo, Mr. Suga has also been a catalyst for significant change. He is credited for helping Mr. Abe make it through controversial security laws that allow the Japanese military to participate in combat missions abroad alongside allies. Mr. Suga was also seen as a strong proponent of a bill, passed two years ago, which authorized a sharp increase in the number of foreign workers admitted to Japan.
Other glimpses of his political hand have raised concerns. Some critics claim that 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 media.
“I think Mr. Suga is more dangerous than Mr. Abe,” Kihei Maekawa, a former deputy education minister, told The Sunday Mainichi weekly.
With Mr. Suga as prime minister, Mr. Maekawa predicted, “bureaucrats will either be servants or act as private servicemen” under the prime minister’s office, “worse than in the Abe era.”
One of the main questions is how long will Mr. Suga last. Whether he ends up becoming an interim leader or stays after a general election likely depends on his response to immediate challenges like the pandemic, the postponed Tokyo Olympics, and mounting tensions with China.
There are rumors that Mr. Suga could call early elections immediately after taking over the prime minister. If successful, it could solidify its popularity. If not, “maybe this is just an interim leader,” said Ken Hijino, a law professor at Kyoto University, “and he’ll show up with a surprise younger and more attractive face to go to the general election.”
For now, the public supports Mr. Suga, with over 50% of respondents in a national poll last week supporting him. to be prime minister.
While Japanese voters see Mr. Suga and Mr. Abe as something of a couple, their family origins could hardly be more different. Mr. Abe is a third generation politician and grandson of a prime minister; Mr. Suga had an insignificant upbringing in rural Akita prefecture, along with two older sisters and a younger brother.
“He was so quiet that nobody paid any attention to him,” said Hiroshi Kawai, a high school friend who now works as a tour guide in Mr. Suga’s hometown of Yuzawa City.
“We have proverbs like” great talents are slow to mature “and” a wise hawk hides its claws, “” said Mr. Kawai in a telephone interview. “Now, I understand that those words were created for Mr. Suga.”
According to a biography of Isao Mori, Mr. Suga’s father suggested that 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 to the old Tsukiji fish market, before enrolling at Hosei University.
When he decided to pursue the policy, in the absence of family ties, he asked the employment services center to introduce a Member of Parliament.
In 1975, Mr. Suga took up a job as the secretary of Hikosaburo Okonogi, a member of the House of Representatives in Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city. Mr. Suga’s duties included buying cigarettes and parking cars.
He also quickly learned how to meet 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 bought shoes for Mr. Suga because he “put them on quickly” by going door to door to visit voters. in the district.
The Sugas had three children, but in a debate last week, Mr. Suga admitted he was rarely home while they were growing up.
In 1987, he ran for a seat on Yokohama City Council, where he became known as Yokohama’s “shadow” mayor. It helped develop transport links to the port and pushed to lower waiting lists in city nurseries.
“He has four eyes and four ears,” Koichi Fujishiro, former Yokohama city council chairman, 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, awkward period as prime minister, from 2006 to 2007, Mr. Suga was 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 returned 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 steps to get out of the shadows. When the The government has officially unveiled the name of the new era that marks the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito, it was Mr. Suga who dramatically revealed a calligraphic rendition of the name, Reiwa, earning him the nickname “Uncle Reiwa”.
Mr. Suga also trumpeted his idea, 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 lobster than they raised in donations.
In foreign policy, Mr. Suga worked to fill the holes in his wallet. 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 was 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 Trump-Abe bromance not to be repeated again.”
Hikari Hida and Hisako Ueno contributed to the reports.