The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will vote on Monday to choose his replacement. Japan is not a presidential system: the country’s leader is chosen by parliamentarians, so the next LDP leader, whoever he is, should have an easy path to becoming prime minister.
Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba are also in office. If Suga is chosen, it will mark the pinnacle of an incredible and unlikely political career for the 72-year-old.
Suga and Abe̵
Suga was Abe’s right hand man the entire time, serving as the Prime Minister’s cabinet secretary, a role similar to a combination of chief of staff and press officer.
But the two couldn’t be more stylistically different. Abe is the charismatic scion of one of Japan’s most important political dynasties, an important asset in a party political system that values pedigree. His father was a foreign minister and is related to two former prime ministers.
Suga is the son of a farmer and is known as a pragmatic trader behind the scenes. He grew up in rural Akita prefecture and moved to Tokyo after high school. He then did a series of odd jobs – including one in a cardboard factory and another at the famous Tsukiji Fish Market – to save money for the university, which he continued to attend part-time while working.
Suga entered the fast-paced, punitive world of Japanese wage earners after graduation, but it didn’t last. Politics was what shaped and influenced the world, and that’s what he wanted to do.
So he decided to run for Yokohama city council. Although he lacked connections and political experience, he made up for it with grit and hard work. He conducted a door-to-door campaign, visiting about 300 homes a day and 30,000 in total, according to the LDP. When the election took place, he had worn out six pairs of shoes.
Suga’s rap has changed little since that campaign. Today he is known as a successful political operator, who can be relied on to get things done – qualities that have made him an excellent right-hand for Abe.
It was an important ally in the Prime Minister’s efforts to enact a series of economic policies known as “Abenomics” – a combination of monetary stimulus, increased government spending and structural reforms intended to restart Japan’s stagnant economy.
If chosen to be prime minister, Suga should be something of a “substitute for Abe,” said Kazuto Suzuki, deputy dean and professor of international politics at Hokkaido University.
Suzuki said it is possible that LDP members are looking to take advantage of a brief spike in Abe’s popularity after he announced his resignation; Abe’s approval ratings had headed south early. A poll by Mainichi, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, prior to the announcement of Abe’s resignation found that 58.4% of people surveyed were dissatisfied with his handling of the pandemic. And his approval rating had dropped to 36%, the lowest since 2012.
Brad Glosserman, a Japanese policy expert, said Suga has not yet proved “that he is in any way a true departure from either the Abe line or even out of the mainstream of the LDP in general.”
“He has a very good story … He’s a self-made man. The question, however, is to what extent does he have a personality that can shine through,” said Glosserman, the author of “Peak Japan: The End of great ambitions “.
Major issues, such as huge public debt and an aging population, loom in the distance, and despite Abe’s public calls for gender equality reforms in the workplace, critics say he has failed to address the country’s gender gap or to solve problems that prevent greater participation of women in the economy and politics.
As chief cabinet secretary, Suga was widely regarded as a successful spokesperson because he was able to communicate a message without obscuring either him or his boss. But that same skill could prove to be a problem in peak work, where speaking and charisma are important traits in communicating a message to the audience.
“Nobody really knows who this man is. He worked behind the scenes,” Glosserman said of Suga. “It has not yet developed and presented an image to the Japanese public that they will be able to sustain and support.”