TOKYO – Japan’s longest serving prime minister Shinzo Abe’s right-hand man, who orchestrated scrutiny of the press administration and helped cover up corruption scandals that forced Abe to step down, is set to be the next prime minister.
Yoshihide Suga was crowned president of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Monday in an election that was pre-decided in behind-the-scenes deals. The LDP controls the lower house of the Japanese parliament and thus its president will become the new prime minister. The Japanese press, which Suga successfully tamed, did its best to transform his ascension into the story of a simple, hard-working boy from a rural prefecture who made his way to the top. But the real Suga is no country jerk. He is an information junkie, a control freak, loyal to his boss to the point of guilt, ruthless, vengeful, and never forgets a favor or a myth. In a way, he shares many of the qualities that would make him an ideal number two in any yakuza organization in Japan; indeed, his past ties to the yakuza may come to haunt him as he takes power.
Who is Yoshihide Suga?
The best authority on Yoshihide Suga turns out to be himself. He wrote a book, The resolution of a politician (201
As Abe grew up politically, so did Suga. When Abe, plagued by scandals and disease, was no longer able to bear to be prime minister in 2007, he resigned for the first time. Suga, always a faithful vassal, did not abandon his master even in a semi-political exile. By helping him gain the support of the powerful right-wing lobby and Shinto cult, Nippon Kaigi, Suga paved the way for him to return to power.
He is the longest-serving cabinet secretary in Japanese history, and is a crucial position. The cabinet secretary speaks to the press twice a day and can somehow be said to actually rule the country. The secretary coordinates policy between government ministries, is the liaison between the prime minister and his political party, is available 24/7 to deal with crisis management and is sometimes called “the shadow prime minister. “. A 2016 book by Isao Mori, The Prime Minister’s reflection, explains in detail how powerful Suga had become in his position.
Suga’s political achievements are rather minor. It is credited for inducing telecom operators to cut their relatively expensive mobile phone rates. He pushed for the relaxation of visa rules to stimulate tourism in Japan. He devised the furusato nōzei (hometown tax donation), which allows tax relief for those who make donations to the municipality of their choice.
Suga, despite his austere demeanor, is immensely sociable. He spends every night participating in different dinners and drinks with journalists, politicians, academics, influential agents of power and sometimes bureaucrats. They can get drunk but he never does; Suga does not touch alcohol. He has different thirst: a thirst for power, a thirst for respect, a thirst for influence. For breakfast, dinner with businessmen, CEOs and economists. Remains in good shape; does 100 sit-ups a day and has a spartan fitness regime.
He is also an avid reader. One of his favorite books is a novel about Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) who went from a peasant background to become one of the most powerful rulers of Japan. It is easy to see why Suga admires him. Toyotomi has operated in the shadows for most of his life, but when he took power, he ruled effectively and brutally. He launched a failed war to conquer Korea in 1592, a war of such epic cruelty that even Japanese scholars of the time noticed the terrible atrocities. Toyotomi was also very vain, despite the fact that Lord Nobunaga had nicknamed him “kozaru” (little monkey) due to his ape-like appearance and stature. In the LDP, some of Suga’s opponents call him “kozaru” behind him, but never in his face.
Friends in dark places
The ruling LDP party has long-standing ties to the yakuza, so it’s no surprise that as Suga is about to become prime minister, some of his questionable ties to the traditional Japanese mafia have been reexamined.
Magazine Shukan Shincho notes that Suga was closely related to the company linked to the yakuza Suruga Corporation, which was once listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The company paid millions of dollars to a Yamaguchi-gumi Goto-Gumi front company to evict senior tenants and small businesses from the properties they wanted to develop between 2001 and 2008. During this time, the company regularly donated money. to the political fund of Suga. This all came to light in March 2008, when the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department arrested yakuza members for illegally evicting tenants. None of the Suruga Corporation were arrested, as it was technically not illegal to hire yakuza for unsavory business practices at the time.
The company was also well connected and had placed a former prosecutor and former National Police Agency officer on the board. An investigator on the case said The Daily Beast, “Suga and the president of the Suruga Corporation, Iwata, were close friends. I can’t believe Suga had no idea what was going on. The company did a lot of business in its constituency. “
In fact, one tenant who confronted the yakuza trying to evict her on Suruga’s behalf was told during the negotiations: “Suga has Suruga Corporation’s back on this. Give up and leave.”
At the time the scandal broke out, the Suruga office told the press: “We were not aware of such things.” Suga’s office reportedly later returned political donations from the Suruga Corporation.
In November last year, another problem emerged with the yakuza. A photo of Suga posing with a leader of the yakuza went into circulation during a cherry blossom viewing ceremony organized by Prime Minister Abe. When Suga was questioned about it, he refused to answer saying it was impossible to define “antisocial forces”, a euphemism for yakuza. His remarks ended up empowering the yakuza. Many of the laws in place to combat organized crime depend on the definition of the term.
Information junkie and control freak
When Abe returned to power in 2012, he faced three challenges. One, was to make the public forget his disastrous first term. Two, to reign in the Japanese press which could report on new scandals or bad decisions taken by the Prime Minister. Three, taming Japan’s independent bureaucracy and government agencies to make sure they follow Abe’s policy. Suga has undertaken these tasks successfully. He was the architect of a plan to systematically limit and gag the media. In 2012, Japan ranked 22 in the world press freedom ranking determined by Reporters Without Borders; now it hovers around 66th place. Suga deserves credit for that significant drop.
Suga forged Abe’s strategy of winning and dine at the top of Japanese newspapers and TV stations by excluding critical media from the main stories. He has endeared himself to some members of the cabinet press club, which has helped ensure he can see almost any question before a press conference, and is actively working to limit questions that might embarrass the government. When a difficult question escapes him, he is able to lie with stoic aplomb, as he has done in numerous scandals. He was instrumental in achieving the removal of outspoken news hosts and commentators from the few Japanese news programs.
In the numerous corruption scandals involving the prime minister and his appointees, Suga knowingly lied to the press about the existence of documents and evidence. Some reporters have pointed this out, to their regret. He does not treat dissent with grace. Especially as female reporters.
Suga has a particularly thorny relationship with Tokyo Shimbun reporter, Isoko Mochizuki, who is one of the few journalists at the press club who will ask him difficult questions. He has the audacity to answer when he evades the question. He tried to get her removed from the press club and snubbed her for months on end.
She became a popular hero to some for standing up to him and not holding back, which inspired a critically acclaimed documentary and surprise hit film. Reporter Newspaper in 2019. In a press conference related to Abe’s role in approving a school building inappropriately, when Suga kept evading questions, he asked “What exactly do you think should be the purpose of a presser?”
He replied: “It is not necessary to answer your question.”
Mochizuki wrote in Weekly mail revised last week, “This is the essence of his problem. He doesn’t understand that when he speaks to the press he is talking to the people who read the newspapers, to the public, and that he has a duty to inform them.”
In 2015, Suga’s former personal secretary Itaru Nakamura, who had been appointed police chief of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, blocked an investigation into the rape of journalist Shiori Ito. The man accused of rape was a friend of Suga and had written two brilliant biographies of Abe. Suga was consulted before Nakamura broke the arrest.
When Shiori Ito won a civil suit against the man last year, Suga declined to comment on the case. When Nakamura was promoted to a high-ranking position in the National Police Agency this January, Suga answered questions about the correctness of the decision by replying, “He’s the right person, in the right place.” Ironically, one of the reasons Abe stepped down is that Nakamura was not chosen to be the head of the National Police Agency.
It was also Suga who came up with a plan to change the laws so that a high-ranking prosecutor close to Abe, Hiromu Kurokawa, could become the country’s chief prosecutor. This would have ensured that Abe, and perhaps Suga too, would be immune to criminal investigation. That plan failed terribly and the backlash drove Abe’s support ratings to record lows.
Cover-up and rebellion
Suga was an architect with the Cabinet Personnel Bureau in 2014 who gave the administration unprecedented centralized control of over 600 high-level bureaucratic assignments. In other words, if you are an elite government employee and want to rise to the top, you must do what the prime minister likes, or you risk being sidelined. It created an atmosphere that encouraged any ambitious agency employee to make decisions with the goal of pleasing the administration rather than serving public interests.
Critics pointed out that this created the whole problem of “sontaku “ (alleged actions), in which officials not only make politics to please politicians rather than what might be effective, but also destroy and alter public documents on their own to cover up their bosses. Under Suga’s watch, officials who participate in the cover-ups are rewarded and promoted. In a recent television appearance, he defended his position by saying, “Any government employee who disagrees (with me) will be moved somewhere else.”
Dissent is not tolerated. A high-ranking bureaucrat who protested that Suga’s “hometown tax” program unfairly benefited the rich was sidelined for his frankness and stripped the so-called elitist course.
In 2017, when Kihei Maekawa, a former bureaucrat at the Ministry of Education, came forward with evidence confirming Abe’s involvement in a school scandal, Suga allegedly orchestrated a smear campaign to discredit him. The nation’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, which is to the Abe administration what Fox News is to the Trump administration, aided with glee.
Like it or hate it, Suga is adept at getting the media to do what he wants.
Many expect Suga to be more or less a carbon copy of Prime Minister Abe when he takes office. At the press conference on September 2, in which he announced he would run for president of the LDP, he repeatedly said he would continue the Abe-era policies, also making it clear that he would not open the lid on Abe’s corruption scandals. The press was so frustrated by his evasive responses and his promises to follow in Abe’s footsteps, that a reporter from the Mainichi Newspaper hit him with the following question:
I seem to hear Prime Minister Abe’s statements. As “Prime Minister Suga”, do you simply intend to be an extension of the Abe regime? If there is any difference, what is different and how will it be different?
Suga was momentarily stunned and blurted out that he would shake up the bureaucracy.
Abe’s disastrous economic policies are even expected to continue with minor variations. This time it will be called “Suganomics”.