Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga sits in a chair at the general affairs office as the new president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after winning in the LDP presidential election in Tokyo on September 14, 2020. Photo AFP via The Yomiuri Shimbun

In the culmination of a leadership shift that has yielded neither surprise nor drama, ex-Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was signed, stamped and sealed as Japan’s new prime minister after a vote in both houses of the Diet on Wednesday.

With Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) firmly in parliamentary control, the victory was emphatic. He won 314 votes in the 465-member House of Representatives and 142 votes in the 245-member House of Councillors.

After that, all that remained was ceremonial and Suga was subsequently granted the imperial seal of approval by Emperor Naruhito. Earlier, Suga had been elected the leader of the ruling LDP by a landslide in a plebiscite that was restricted to party elite on September 14.  

As he takes over the national reigns from predecessor Shinzo Abe, who announced his resignation last month on grounds of ill health and against a backdrop of scandal, low ratings and public dissatisfaction with his government’s Covid-19 response, Suga’s so-called “continuity cabinet” is taking shape.

The 71-year-old farmer’s son is a canny, diligent, well-connected and experienced domestic political operator who has pledged to follow Abeian policies. In his nearly eight years as cabinet secretary, he astutely – some would say ruthlessly – took a grip of both the bureaucracy and the media.

His first policy priority looks well within his personal comfort zone. He has stressed administrative reform, making the civil service and government more responsive to the public.

Prime Minister-elect Yoshihide Suga (front, R) receives an attestation letter from Emperor Naruhito (L) at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on September 16, 2020, as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2nd from L) watches. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Still, his leadership politicking may not be over yet.

Questions now hover over whether he will decide to establish his leadership credentials beyond the boundaries of the LDP and the Diet by going to the public and calling a snap general election in the months ahead. The next polls are not due until October 2021. If Suga leads the LDP to victory, he would silence any criticisms that he is merely a “caretaker premier.”

Following a series of leaks, the contours of Suga’s cabinet have come into view. According to Japanese national broadcaster NHK and national newswire Kyodo News, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato will become chief cabinet secretary, a powerful role that combines chief-of-staff, spokesman and close aide.

That will be a particularly key role for Suga.

“Abe was a kind of presidential prime minister, but I think Suga will be a more consensus-oriented leader,” said Lim Eun-jung, an international relations and Japan specialist at South Korea’s Kongju National University. “His first year will be tough. He will have to be responsive to LDP factions.”

Suga’s consensual and conservative instincts are apparent in his cabinet choices.

Appointments appear to have been doled out to members of key factions in the LDP and the party’s Diet coalition partner Komeito. A number of key players retain their positions, including LDP old hand and Finance Minister Taro Aso.

Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo on August 28, 2020. Photo: AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi

The new team

According to Japanese media analyses, the average age of Suga’s team is 60. In one of the world’s most gender-unequal societies, only two ministerial positions have gone to women – at Justice and Olympics/Paralympics – and 18 to men. According to Kyodo, 15 of 20 appointees held positions in the previous administration.

Taro Kono, the American-educated defense minister and former foreign minister, is seen as one of the most capable and global of the LDP’s current generation. However, he is being pulled off the international beat to spearhead Suga’s administrative reform drive.

It is unclear whether that is a demotion or promotion. While the role is not as prestigious as defense minister, it will be Suga’s core interest at the first stage of his premiership. And administrative reform is also a down-to-earth task.

“Suga looks more pragmatic than Abe,” said Lim. “I guess he has his own ideas, but I am not sure what his ideology is.”

In speeches he has made since Abe announced his resignation last month, Suga has vowed to take a katana to bureaucratic red tape, abolish overlapping constituencies and upgrade 24-7 digital governance, making for a more responsive administration.

Those efficiencies should aid Suga in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic. Abe was reportedly irked by the Health Ministry’s inability to conduct more tests and there have been public complaints about the unresponsiveness of medical pros, notably when it comes to obtaining tests and treatments, and where to get them.

Looking further ahead, Suga must manage the imponderable of the Tokyo Olympics, which have been uncertainly postponed to next summer. In the longer term, he must strive to address Japan Inc’s flagging creativity and slow Japan’s demographic plunge.

Logo of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics at Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters in Shinjuku Ward in March when the postponement was being discussed. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Suga coordinated closely with Abe on a range of overseas trips, so is familiar with major international issues and personalities. But he is neither a diplomat nor a globalist.

Given this, two key portfolios are foreign affairs and defense.

Abe’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi is tipped to keep his job. His biggest challenge will be juggling economic ties with China and strategic ties with the United States. He will also have to ensure the continuance of tight ties with whoever the US president may be next year.

Moreover, he will have to manage rocky relations with neighboring South Korea, now mired in complex disputes that knot together wartime forced labor compensation with contemporary trade ties.

Though there are hopes for a relationship reset in Seoul, Suga has offered no indication that he plans to shift from Abe’s stance on these issues.

He will also be overseeing Japan’s expanding network of bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements. An FTA with a post-Brexit United Kingdom is now pending.

Succeeding Kono at the Defence Ministry is Nobu Kishi, Abe’s younger brother. Both men are grandsons of Nobosuke Kishi, a high-profile figure notorious in China and South Korea for his behavior in wartime Manchuria, but who was rehabilitated by the US post-war and served as prime minister.

The younger Kishi, like his elder brother, is known to be a member of the hard right-wing lobby group Nippon Kagi. Also like Abe, he favors a revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution to grant a wider role for Japan’s Self Defense Forces, or SDF. Suga is also expected to promote this contentious policy aim.

Members of Japan's Self-Defence Forces' airborne troops stand at attention during the annual SDF ceremony at Asaka Base. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Members of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces’ airborne troops stand at attention during the annual SDF ceremony at Asaka Base. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Constitutional constraints

That is a hugely difficult task politically but there are loopholes in defense policy.

Abe maneuvered around constitutional constraints to both significantly beef up the SDF and deploy it on widely ranging missions. These included patrol activities in the Persian Gulf, humanitarian operations in South Sudan and power projection exercises in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

Closer to home, Japanese air and seaborne units have been kept busy countering Chinese probing of its periphery and maintaining Tokyo’s sovereignty of the Senkaku-Daiyu islands. Kishi is the man for the job, said one expert.

“He could be one of the best defense ministers Japan has ever had,” said Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine colonel and former military attache in Tokyo. “He has had an interest in it for a long time, and he understands the importance of the US-Japan relationship for Japan’s defense, but also understands that Japan needs to improve its own defense capability.”

Kishi, unusually for a Diet member, has taken the time to visit US units in Hawaii and elsewhere, Newsham said. He is also a strong supporter of Taiwan, which is under increasing pressure from Beijing. 

In the ministerial hot seat, Kishi will be in charge of countering an expansive China, managing Japan’s rising defense budgets and maintaining relations with an erratic Trumpian Washington, which is demanding a five-fold increase in the cost-sharing of Japan-based US troops despite the unpopularity of their presence on the island of Okinawa.

The Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Test Complex at the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Kauai, Hawaii, conducts a flight test. Photo: US Defense Department

This month, he will face questions that have been posed since June, when Kono made a shock decision to ditch the expensive, US-made Aegis Ashore missile defense system, ostensibly due to the risk its detached booster rockets pose to those on the densely populated ground below.

In its place, speculation has been hovering over whether Japan might adopt a constitutionally problematic “first strike” protocol. Newsham, however, is dubious about that likelihood.

“First strike is not really a solution unless it is really first-class and plugged in with the Americans – and it will cost 100 times more than Aegis ashore,” he said.

Instead, Newsham said potential solutions are the purchase of new, Aegis-specialized vessels, Aegis missiles mounted on offshore barges or even the relocation of the Aegis Ashore to a more remote part of the country.

Answers to these questions had been expected this month, before Abe’s resignation hurled a wrench into the national political machinery.

According to Newsham, further challenges facing Kishi include the necessity to upgrade SDF joint-operation capabilities and related upgrades to its interoperability with US forces. Currently, only the SDF’s maritime component has this ability, he said. 

Newsham also suggested that Japan needs to spend more – he estimates $10-20 billion more per year – on defense. Facing a shortage of recruits, Tokyo also needs to make military service a more popular and respected profession.

This picture from the Japan Coast Guard on November 6, 2011, shows a Chinese fishing boat (L) being chased by a Japanese Coast Guard vessel near Senkaku islands or Diaoyutai island in the East China sea. Photo: AFP/Japan Coast Guard/Jiji Press

The China challenge

Alex Neill, who heads a Singapore-based strategic consultancy focused on the Indo-Pacific, suggests that Japan needs to “meet the China challenge head-on.”

Underpowered Japan has managed to muscle up significantly.

“They have taken great strides over the last decade and are really a potent navy now – though you can’t call it a navy – with very impressive force projection capabilities,” Neill said.

Under Abe, Japan stood up a marine brigade, ordered one of the world’s largest fleets of F35 stealth fighters and commissioned de facto F35 aircraft carriers, now being converted from “helicopter destroyers.”

But in addition to hardware, Japan needs to upgrade command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, Neill said.

In that area, Suga has some experience.

“Suga presided over the creation of the Cabinet Intelligence Research Office (CIRO) – bureaucratically, he streamlined intelligence analyses into this one organization,” Neill said. “Before it had been fragmented and stove-piped. That was quite a step forward.”

Neill estimated that the SDF has gone about as far as it can within the current limits of the constitution. Its expanded materiel and role lie within the context of both global terrorism and China’s rising assertiveness.

While Japan’s defense authorities have made frequent reference to upholding international laws in international waters, in space and in cyberspace, it is not clear how far its SDF will be allowed to go in upholding these principles.

This suggests that what is needed is a national debate on doctrine.

“What it boils down to in Japanese society, is the appetite to take casualties,” Neill said. “With the increasingly volatile East and South China Seas, and with Chinese incursions on Japan’s periphery, there is potential for unplanned escalation. This is the next phase for Japanese defense planners: How assertive are they prepared to be?”

It’s one of many policy dilemmas Suga will soon need to address.