Japan's newly minted Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will need to extend the iron fist he used to grasp Japan's media and civil service to the defense sphere. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

In Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party leadership race, to be decided on September 14, Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga looks almost certain to become the nation’s next prime minister.

Suga, 71, is widely viewed as a “poor boy made good” and noted for his fearsome self-discipline, energetic networking and savvy information management.

The right-hand man of outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is resigning due to ill health, Suga served for more than seven years as cabinet secretary. He is respected within the LDP but feared by the civil service and press – all for good reason.

On the plus side, a Suga premiership will assure stability and policy continuation. Domestically, the outgoing Abe is credited for implementing economic policies, known as “Abenomics”, that overcame the “lost decade” of the 1990s. On the foreign front, he cozied up to the United States while forging relations and trade deals with other global partners. 

On the downside, Suga is perhaps too closely associated with his predecessor, whose long premiership clearly outlasted its welcome. Abe’s inability to raise wages and reign in Covid-19, as well as his linkage to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic debacle, saw his popularity ratings recently dip to the low 30% range.

Suga did little to distinguish himself or win public affection until last April, when he giddily revealed the kanji (written character) for the new Imperial Era, or Reiwa, on national television. For that, he was embraced as “Reiwa Ojisan” or “Uncle Reiwa” by the public. 

Then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announces the new era name ‘Reiwa’ at a press conference in Tokyo on April 1. Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP

But Suga is also a cold, formidable operator who has taken an iron grip on the bureaucracy and media. Given that multiple scandals now taint Abe and his LDP, backdoor deals that look set to ensure Suga – who has kept a lid on the misconduct – becomes the new premier, his elevation makes good sense for the party’s powerbrokers.

The broad question is whether Suga will act on his own convictions and make a mark on the premiership, or will simply act as a “caretaker” leader who continues Abe’s policies until the next national election in October 2021.

Speculation is rampant that Suga, if elected in Monday’s intra-party vote (he is believed to have 70% support within the LDP), will call a snap general election to firm up both his own and the LDP’s position with the electorate.

Unlike many parliamentarians and the wellborn Abe, Suga hails from humble origins. He was raised in a farming village in Akita Prefecture, a rural region in northwest Japan known for its long winters, deep snowfalls and dogs. There, his family reportedly had a successful strawberry plantation. The first-born son, he was the pride of his parents. 

At a time when many locals dropped out of school after junior high to work for their parents or local industry, Suga proceeded to high school. After graduation, he worked briefly in a cardboard manufacturing plant.

In 1969, he enrolled in the legal studies department of the well-respected Hosei University. Six years later, he became the political secretary of an LDP parliamentarian.

He was 38 when he entered politics on his own account, as a Yokohama City council member. In that position, he endeared himself to local powerbrokers and was elected to the lower house of parliament at 47.  

When Abe ran for the premiership in 2006, Suga backed him to the hilt. The term proved a failure: Abe, plagued by scandal and illness, resigned in 2007. But Suga did not abandon him. 

Abe’s enforcer

During the wilderness years when Abe was seen as a political has-been, Suga, with the help of the nationwide right-wing lobby and Shinto cult Nippon Kaigi, maintained his support. That powerful network enabled Abe’s triumphant 2012 comeback as national leader. 

Suga is noted for his negotiating prowess and consensus-building. He is credited as the go-between Abe and New Komeito, the nominally Buddhist political party which entered a powerful parliamentary alliance with the LDP.

Suga is also credited with forcing Japan’s bureaucrats to relax visa regulations – a move that dramatically boosted tourism, a key Abe policy. He also reputedly convinced major telecommunications operators to lower mobile phone bills, which were disproportionately high due to lack of competition.

Another notable Suga achievement is the furusato nōzei (“hometown tax donation”) program, which permits tax reductions for those who donate to their local municipalities. This has benefitted local economies suffering from dwindling working populations. 

In 2014, Suga was the chief architect of the Cabinet Personnel Bureau, which granted the administration unprecedented control over top bureaucratic appointments. 

That essentially meant that ambitious civil servants had to please Abe if they were to succeed in their careers. Critics have charged that this creates a dynamic where government employees work to please the administration rather than the public. 

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga (L) and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) leave a budget committee session of the House of Councillors in Tokyo, May 13, 2016. Photo: AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi

A self-disciplinarian who defies his age by doing 100 sit-ups a day, Suga is a maestro at information collection and management, according to reporters who have covered the cabinet.

Though he doesn’t drink, he nevertheless engages in boozy dinner sessions with influential academics, journalists, politicians and bureaucrats. And he often does it twice nightly.  

The first session lasts from 6:00pm-9:00pm; the second from 9:00pm-11:00pm. He sometimes even proceeds to a third function and also has regular power breakfasts, usually with business figures.

On top of this killer schedule, he reportedly reads voraciously.

Perhaps revealingly, one of Suga’s favorite books is a historical novel about Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), who rose from a peasant background to become a retainer (a sort of medieval cabinet secretary) of a powerful lord before becoming one of the most powerful warlords in Japanese history. 

Hideyoshi unified Japan but also launched a foreign war by invading China via Korea. 

Like Abe, Suga appears to be a staunch supporter of the US and is known to be a fan of Colin Powell, the former general and ex-secretary of state.

His views on China are not clear but some, including the author of a 2016 biography of Suga, Isao Mori, have speculated that he may be less hawkish than Abe. It remains to be seen how he will engage South Korea, an important relationship that has deteriorated significantly on Abe’s watch.

Mastering media

Suga is not the most camera-friendly politician, but he knows how to deal with the media.

When reporters in the Cabinet Press Pool are promoted, he congratulates them. He checks all questions in advance of press conferences and actively limits questions that might embarrass the government.  As a last line of defense, he has been known to deny the existence of documents, a tactic he has deployed to tamp down numerous scandals. 

He masterminded Abe’s strategy of “candy and whip” to reign in media, a mixture of wining and dining top media executives, rewarding compliant outlets with exclusives and shunting out uncooperative media. Suga has been instrumental in getting news anchors and outspoken commentators removed from Japan’s few hard-hitting news programs.  

As a result, coverage of his prime ministerial aspirations has been almost overwhelmingly positive, focusing on his “hard-working,” “ordinary guy” and “rags to riches” images. 

But this has all had a harsh impact on the Japanese press. In 2020, Japan’s World Press Freedom ranking was 66th, according to press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, compared to 22nd when Abe first took power. 

Then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to the tightly managed Japanese media at his official residence in Tokyo on November 22, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum/Stringer/JiJi Press/Japan Out

Abe’s term was overshadowed by multiple scandals and allegations of governmental cover-ups, alterations of data and destruction of public documents. Suga could inspire more confidence than Abe by making government more transparent and accountable. 

In his 2012 book The Resolution of A Politician, Suga wrote:“It is natural and right that the government keep clearly preserved records. The most basic of these are the minutes of meetings. If a government neglects to do these things, it is a betrayal of the people.” 

Yet, at a press conference in 2017 about a scandal involving alleged favoritism shown by Abe towards a school operator, Suga was asked, “What politician wrote this in a book?” Suga replied, “I don’t know.” 

Moreover, there is widespread speculation about Suga’s alleged ties to organized crime, including the yakuza.

Last November, several weekly magazines reported that an individual linked to an “anti-social organization”- a local euphemism for the  mob – was present at a cherry blossom viewing party hosted by Abe in the spring. Suga was seen in a photograph with a former yakuza member at the event. 

Suga’s response to questions about the affair, critics say, was a masterpiece of evasion. He proclaimed, “It’s impossible to really define ‘anti-social forces.’” That statement prompted several harsh editorials in the local press. 

Will Suga be Abe redux? If so, that might not be a sound strategy. If polls are to be believed, Abe #2 is not someone the general public seems to want. 

At a press conference on September 2, Suga repeatedly said he would continue Abe’s policies in announcing his leadership ambitions. He also made it clear he would not open the lid on Abe-era corruption scandals. 

In response to a question about what he might do differently, a sour-faced Suga replied, “I’ll get rid of the compartmentalized political structure.” 

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga attends a press conference at the prime minister’s office on August 24, 2020. Photo: AFP via The Yomiuri Shimbun

That apparently means cutting overlapping functions between government agencies and making sure they work more efficiently together, an achievement Suga might well pull off given his history of handling bureaucrats.

On August 8, at his official election press conference, Suga looked stiff and uncomfortable as he read his official statement that mainly heaped praise on Abe. But many hope Suga might steer Japan in a different, bolder direction, particularly on the economy. 

Mariko Mabuchi, an economic analyst, wrote in President magazine that Suga is noted for meeting business leaders. Mabuchi also praised Suga’s ability to light a fire under the bureaucracy and shake up the status quo, suggesting the potential for “Suganomics.” 

What might that be? Only Suga knows as he has not made his economic policy clear. 

Women woes 

Last year, Japan ranked 121st out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum gender equality rankings, a record low and the worst in the G7. 

In this light, Suga is at daggers drawn with popular Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike – an Abe ally-turned-enemy, and perhaps the highest-profile female politician in Japan.

In 2015, Suga’s former personal secretary, Itaru Nakamura, then Tokyo’s chief of criminal investigations, quashed an investigation into the rape of journalist Shiori Ito. The accused rapist was a friend of Suga who had written two glowing biographies of Abe. 

Suga has a particularly prickly relationship with Tokyo Shimbun reporter, Isoko Mochizuki, one of the few reporters who poses tough questions. She has become a popular heroine and inspired last year’s surprise hit movie, Newspaper Reporter.

“He doesn’t understand that when he is talking to the press that he is talking to the people who read the papers – the public,” Mochizuki wrote of Suga in the Weekly Post magazine. 

In his personal life, Suga appears to be more of a gent. He is reportedly deeply attached to his wife Mariko, 66, and when he speaks to her on the phone uses “keigo”, the polite form of Japanese.