Japan’s new Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide faces a year of crisis

Japan’s new prime minister is at once the likeliest and unlikeliest person in decades to lead his country.

Suga Yoshihide was former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s right-hand man, serving in a role that mixes the duties of top spokesperson and chief of staff. He helped Abe govern for eight years until illness forced Abe to resign in August.

If there was anyone who could continue Abe’s legacy while attempting to stabilize the country, Suga was it. Many in the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) thought it’d be foolish not to stick by the figure in the party election to choose the next leader.

At the same time, Suga isn’t cut from the same cloth as Japan’s previous 98 prime ministers. He doesn’t have any familial ties to politics. He doesn’t come from a big city. He doesn’t have an elite education. He doesn’t really even have a faction within his own party. All he does have is a reputation as a hard worker and an effective operator who gets stuff done.

“The impression of him is that he’s Dick Cheney,” a prickly and shadowy behind-the-scenes mastermind, said Joshua Walker, president and CEO of the New York-based Japan Society, though he noted Suga is actually more personable, folksy, and charming than the public’s perception of him.

Suga “is the Japanese common guy who realized his dream,” Walker said.

Since he became prime minister last month, the 71-year-old Suga has worked to ensure his dream doesn’t turn into a nightmare. Parliamentary elections must be held by next October, which gives Suga no more than a year to make his case to stay in charge. That’s a daunting task, as he must curb his country’s Covid-19 outbreak while boosting a sputtering economy — and all in time for Tokyo to host the 2021 Summer Olympics.

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If Suga doesn’t succeed, a younger cohort of party leaders who covet the premiership — some of whom are in his Cabinet — might move to unseat him. Their hope, experts told me, was for Suga to take the blows in the hard year ahead so they could take over in calmer times, untainted and unharmed. But such a play is risky as it rests on betting a popular bureaucratic infighter will fail.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (who is in the center of the front row) walks with his cabinet on September 16, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan.
Issei Kato/Pool via Getty Images

“The prime ministership is a good place from which to advocate staying prime minister, so long as you have successes under your belt and are leading and moving the country in the right direction,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has met Suga. “He’s going to have to make his mark now.”

The question of whether he can do that will dominate the next year of Japanese politics. Clearly not everyone is convinced Suga can stand out and survive, but perhaps the likeliest unlikely prime minister in the nation’s modern history knows how to take his shot.

“Everyone has always underestimated him, and he’s always blown people away,” said Walker. “Underestimating him is a mistake.”

From farm boy to national leader

Most origin stories about a new Japanese prime minister begin with their upbringing in a powerful political family or their time at a great university.

This is not that story.

Suga grew up the son of strawberry farmers in Akita prefecture, a mountainous rural region of northern Japan. Instead of taking over the family business, he moved to Tokyo after high school. To pay for his part-time education at Hosei University — which he chose because it was the cheapest option available — he worked at a cardboard factory and a famed fish market.

It was in school that Suga realized he wanted to be in politics. But with no support system in a country where political fortunes depend on them, he had to start from the very bottom.

In 1975, two years after graduation, he became the secretary for a representative in the government of Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city. It was an unglamorous job, as his daily tasks included fetching cigarettes and parking cars.

Twelve years later he sought office for himself, wearing down six pairs of shoes while running for Yokohama City Council. According to the LDP, he knocked on 300 doors a day, visiting 30,000 homes. He won his race, and quickly earned a reputation as Yokohama’s “shadow” mayor after pushing through some key initiatives, such as making it easier to get to the city’s port and reducing waitlists for day care centers.

But what distinguished him most in that time, and what continues to define him today, is his dogged work ethic. “He’s known for sleeping in his office,” Walker, the Japan Society chief, told me.

That workaholism is part of what initially attracted Suga to Abe, experts said. After serving 10 years in Japan’s lower house of Parliament, Suga was picked by Abe during his first stint as prime minister in 2006 to serve in his Cabinet, overseeing internal affairs and telecommunications.

Then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga listens to proposals for the government of Japan’s plan for Camp Foster on August 12, 2020.
Corporal Jessica Collins for U.S. Marine Corps

The former farm boy stuck by him ever after, even when a scandal led Abe to resign as prime minister the following year. When Abe returned to power in 2012, Suga’s loyalty was rewarded with the plum post of chief cabinet secretary.

That job is arguably Japan’s second-highest government position. Whoever assumes it must hold two press conferences a day and run the bureaucracy from the behind the scenes, basically combining the portfolios of the American press secretary and chief of staff. It’s both an incredibly visible job and a thankless one.

It takes someone with an innate sense of power and an insatiable drive to get the work done.

The right-hand man

Ask experts and people who worked with Suga about his time as chief cabinet secretary, and the first thing they note, unsurprisingly, is his assiduousness.

In his more than 2,300 days in the job, he woke up each morning at 5 am, read the newspaper, did 200 situps, and took a 40-minute walk — but always in a suit in case he had to run into the office for an emergency.

Michael Green, the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, said Suga had breakfast every morning at a hotel near his office with someone who could teach him something. Sometimes that someone was Green.

“He liked to ask me about Obama or Trump and the state of American politics,” Green told me. Suga’s curiosity stemmed from a firm belief in the US-Japan alliance and that Japan must be a leading world power. “He’s a patriot,” Green said.

Once at work, Suga would visit Abe’s office multiple times a day to coordinate messaging, advise on economic policy, provide intelligence, and much more. With his staff, he was known for asking sharp questions about why the government should take certain positions. He could be prickly, sometimes even mean, with those who didn’t have a good answer.

“He’s a no-nonsense guy,” a Japanese official who worked with Suga told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak freely. “Everyone was always on their toes around him and alert whenever they had to brief him.” Sometimes he preferred to read documents by himself, the official added, but he was always willing to take advice from senior aides.

His dedication to his job, many noted, was evidenced by his preference to live in a Parliament-provided apartment in Tokyo instead of his home in Yokohama, and how he only ate soba noodles for lunch so he could finish within five minutes.

But he wasn’t just the guy behind the curtain. He found ways to step onto the stage.

Innately understanding the needs of rural communities, Suga launched a “hometown tax” system in 2008 by which a Japanese citizen can donate money to any local government or prefecture (it doesn’t actually have to be the person’s hometown). In exchange, that person receives a tax deduction nearly equaling the size of the donation, as well as locally made gifts from the recipient to incentivize further donations.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during his press conference in Tokyo on September 16, 2020.
Carl Court/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

More recently, he pushed Japan’s three major wireless carriers in 2018 to slash their prices by 40 percent. He argued they basically had a monopoly in the country and that competition between them wasn’t lowering bills for everyday citizens.

That same year, he took charge of an effort to bring more foreign workers into Japan as a solution for the nation’s aging workforce — batting back years of resistance to such a reform. Japan is “aiming to be a country where foreigners will want to work and live,” Suga said in a statement advocating for the change.

In 2019, he also became the first chief cabinet secretary in three decades to visit Washington, DC, where he discussed national security issues at the White House. It’s unclear what the discussion was specifically about, but experts say it likely touched on North Korea and how much Japan should pay to keep 50,000 US troops stationed in the country.

That Suga made the trip, and not a high-level diplomat, underscored just how much Abe trusted him with major foreign policy matters, experts told me. After all, Suga also had oversight of the country’s national security team and could veto the firing of any government staffer, requiring him to have deep visibility into all bureaucracies, including foreign policy-related ones.

Speculation immediately swirled during the trip that the chief cabinet secretary might be angling to replace Abe once he stepped down.

By all accounts, Suga proved himself a capable operator over eight years. “He has an incredibly good reputation for being able to manage the levers of the bureaucracy,” said CFR’s Smith. “He’s astoundingly good at it.”

Whether he’ll be as effective as prime minister is what everyone is watching for now.

Suga’s make-or-break year

When Abe abruptly resigned in August, Suga pretty quickly consolidated support within his party to become the next prime minister. He faced challengers, but the consensus in the party was that Japan should have continuity at the top of its government during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Suga, Abe’s “Mr. Fix It,” fit the bill.

He vowed to stay on the course Abe set, pushing for a strong Japanese foreign policy and some economic reforms at home.

Then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga (right) presents flowers to now former Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after Suga was elected as new head of Japan’s ruling party at the Liberal Democratic Partyon September 14, 2020.
Eugene Hoshiko/Pool via Getty Images

The foreign policy part may not be a new challenge for Suga, analysts noted. China continues to be antagonistic to Japan, relations with South Korea are tanking, and North Korea is advancing its nuclear arsenal, but all that was true when he was the chief cabinet secretary.

His greatest immediate global challenge might actually be dealing with the US. “If he has a bad relationship with Trump or Biden, whoever is president, he’s toast,” said CSIS’s Green.

Indeed, the US-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of Tokyo’s global relations. Without a good working relationship with the American president, it’ll be harder for Japan to push back on adversaries or reach any reconciliation with South Korea.

But what will most occupy Suga and define his year in charge will be the coronavirus and the economic havoc it’s wreaking.

As of October 21, Japan — a country of around 127 million people — had more than 90,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 1,600 deaths. That’s not bad compared to much of the world, but the pandemic caused the nation’s economy to shrink by around 28 percent between April and June, the largest contraction since the country started keeping records in 1980.

That’s bad news on its own, but Japan was already dealing with a years-long economic slump due in part to an aging workforce. It’s a trend Suga’s keenly aware he must reverse, and doing so starts with minimizing the virus’s spread. “Reviving the economy remains the top priority of the administration,” Suga told reporters just after becoming prime minister on September 16.

But Suga has other ideas to help his country in the meantime. He’s ordered his government to create a new digital agency that, among other things, would help citizens file all necessary paperwork online instead of with old technology.

Experts say this is a needed change, especially since the coronavirus required millions of Japanese people to file paperwork to get their benefits.

The problem is the government’s response to most requests was very slow, as officials still prefer hard copies and fax machines to online forms and email because the hanko — a stamp with a family’s or individual’s seal — is still the main way Japanese people sign documents. Only about 12 percent of all of Japan’s administrative work is currently done online.

Suga and his administration minister Taro Kono — whom many believe wants the premiership — say it’s high time to change that practice. “The creation of a digital agency is a reform that will lead to a major transformation of the Japanese economy and society,” Suga said in September. “I’d like all ministers to cooperate in this major reform with all their might.”

CFR’s Smith said digitizing the government and the nation’s private sector will be hard, and Suga’s initial push was met with raised eyebrows. But now Smith is inundated with requests for Zoom meetings from Japanese colleagues, something that didn’t really happen until the new prime minister encouraged his nation to adopt more digital tools. “Once you begin that process of shifting gears, it can move very quickly in Japan,” she told me.

If Suga can maintain close ties with the US, improve the economy, and quash the coronavirus — making it possible to host the (spectator-less) Olympics in the summer — then he may have a chance of ensuring his party wins parliamentary elections whenever he calls them before next October. “There’s a lot on the line here for the LDP,” Smith said.

Analysts say the LDP is expected to prevail, though a victory doesn’t necessarily mean Suga remains prime minister. Party elders could decide it’s time for new blood, or Abe could come out and say he didn’t like the way his former top staffer ran things. In that case, the race would be on for yet another prime minister in Japan.

Then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga leaves after a press conference at the Prime Minister’s office in Tokyo, Japan on August 31, 2020.
Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

Suga could also make mistakes that lead him to lose his current mandate. For example, he surprisingly refused to accept the appointments of six professors to a state-funded science panel of over 100 academics because of their past criticisms of Abe. Some say he’s aiming to stifle dissent, and while his decision isn’t expected to become a major controversy, it calls into question his judgment.

But Suga, experts say, is keenly aware the job is his to lose. The best chance for him to enact his reforms and Abe-like foreign policy is if he stays in control. Few believe he’ll do anything to jeopardize that possibility in the months to come.

“He understands power very well. He knows you have to build up your position to gain your leverage,” said CSIS’s Green. “Anything he wants to do is just talk until he proves he can win.”


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