Yoshihide Suga Set to Become Japan’s Next Prime Minister

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TOKYO — There are few true surprises in Japanese politics, however the rise of Yoshihide Suga to change into the following prime minister was not precisely preordained.

The son of a strawberry farmer and a schoolteacher from rural northern Japan, Mr. Suga is without doubt one of the few main Japanese lawmakers not from an elite political household. Charisma will not be the primary — and even the second or third — phrase evoked by his public persona. At 71, he’s even older than Shinzo Abe, who immediately introduced in late August that he was resigning as prime minister due to in poor health well being.

What Mr. Suga, the longtime chief cupboard secretary to Mr. Abe, does provide is continuity. He vowed to select up from the place Mr. Abe left off, a gesture that reassured the nation after a string of revolving-door prime ministers. And in Japan, the place stability typically outweighs ideology, Mr. Suga appealed to a tradition-bound political institution that resists change.

On Monday, Mr. Suga swept an election for the management of the conservative Liberal Democratic Celebration — which has ruled Japan for all however 4 years since World Warfare II — assuring him the prime ministership.

Along with his decisive victory in a celebration contest that originally appeared wide open, Mr. Suga demonstrated deft political expertise honed as a behind-the-scenes operator, serving basically as Mr. Abe’s chief of workers and predominant authorities spokesman for practically eight years.

“How quickly the talk coalesced toward Suga,” mentioned Mireya Solis, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies on the Brookings Establishment in Washington, “shows his political acumen.”

However his position as a shadow energy in Japanese politics has rendered him a little bit of a cipher.

In some ways, he looks as if yet one more in a protracted line of dour Japanese politicians. Essentially the most thrilling nugget to emerge in latest information reviews is the revelation that Mr. Suga, a teetotaler with a candy tooth, starts and ends each day with 100 situps. On his website he says he likes river fishing and karate.

Extra substantively, it has been tough to discern Mr. Suga’s imaginative and prescient for Japan, or whether or not he may muster contemporary options for the nation’s deep challenges.

“Generally, politicians have at least a facade of expressing ideals,” mentioned Megumi Naoi, an affiliate professor of political science on the College of California, San Diego, who mentioned she would normally count on “policy statements about the ‘type of world that I want to see.’”

Regardless of practically 1 / 4 century in nationwide politics, Mr. Suga “hasn’t really come out with very strong policies,” Ms. Naoi mentioned.

Reflecting his years as Mr. Abe’s loyal adviser, Mr. Suga, who declined a request for an interview, has promised to pursue a few of the departing prime minister’s most cherished objectives. He’s anticipated to proceed to push for a revision of Japan’s pacifist Constitution and the return of Japanese residents kidnapped by North Korea.

He has additionally mentioned he would roughly persist with Mr. Abe’s signature financial components, generally known as Abenomics, combining straightforward financial coverage, authorities spending and structural reform of industries reminiscent of agriculture.

When Mr. Suga confirmed a tiny signal of staking out a brand new coverage final week — a possible improve in a tax that has hampered consumer spending — he rapidly backtracked.

With international turbulence from the coronavirus pandemic and rising geopolitical threats in Asia, a successor who stays the course could also be simply what Japan wants.

“Japan is not a country with revolutionary reform taking place very often,” mentioned Christina L. Davis, director of the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at Harvard. “Especially in times of crisis and uncertainty, being seen as a stable crisis manager could be an asset.”

At the same time as he epitomizes the established order, Mr. Suga has additionally been a catalyst for vital change. He’s credited with serving to Mr. Abe push by way of contentious security laws that enable Japan’s army to affix abroad fight missions alongside allies. Mr. Suga was additionally thought of a powerful proponent of a invoice, handed two years in the past, authorizing a sharp increase in the number of foreign workers permitted in Japan.

Different glimpses of his political hand have yielded considerations. Some critics say Mr. Suga was the architect behind a few of Mr. Abe’s extra authoritarian impulses, together with his consolidation of energy over Japan’s sprawling paperwork and the use of tactics to silence criticism in the news media.

“I think Mr. Suga is more dangerous than Mr. Abe,” Kihei Maekawa, a former vice training minister, informed The Sunday Mainichi, a weekly journal.

With Mr. Suga as prime minister, Mr. Maekawa predicted, “bureaucrats will be servants or act as a private military” below the prime minister’s workplace, “worse than in the Abe era.”

One main query is simply how lengthy Mr. Suga will final. Whether or not he finally ends up a caretaker chief or stays after a normal election is more likely to depend upon his response to instant challenges just like the pandemic, the postponed Tokyo Olympics and growing tensions with China.

There are rumors that Mr. Suga may name a snap election quickly after he takes over the prime ministership. If profitable, he may consolidate his reputation. If not, “maybe this is just an interim leader,” mentioned Ken Hijino, a professor of legislation at Kyoto College, “and they will come up with some surprise younger, more attractive face to go into the general election.”

For now, the general public helps Mr. Suga, with greater than 50 % of these surveyed in a nationwide ballot final week backing him to be prime minister.

Whereas Japanese voters see Mr. Suga and Mr. Abe as one thing of a pair, their household backgrounds may hardly be extra totally different. Mr. Abe is a third-generation politician and the grandson of a prime minister; Mr. Suga had an unremarkable upbringing in rural Akita Prefecture, together with two older sisters and a youthful brother.

“He was so quiet that no one paid attention to him,” mentioned Hiroshi Kawai, a highschool classmate who now works as a tour information in Mr. Suga’s hometown, Yuzawa Metropolis.

“We have such proverbs as ‘great talents are slow to mature’ and ‘a wise falcon hides its talons,’” Mr. Kawai mentioned in a phone interview. “Now, I realized that those words were created for Mr. Suga.”

In keeping with a biography by Isao Mori, Mr. Suga’s father recommended he work on the household farm, however Mr. Suga determined to maneuver to Tokyo. He took odd jobs, first with a cardboard firm after which driving turret vehicles on the previous Tsukiji fish market, earlier than enrolling at Hosei College.

When he determined to pursue politics, absent household connections, he requested the profession providers middle for an introduction to a member of Parliament.

In 1975, Mr. Suga took a job as secretary to Hikosaburo Okonogi, a member of the Home of Representatives from Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest metropolis. Mr. Suga’s duties included shopping for cigarettes and parking vehicles.

He additionally rapidly realized the way to cater to a constituency. At Mr. Suga’s wedding ceremony to his spouse, Mariko, in 1980, based on Mr. Mori’s biography, a supporter of Mr. Okonogi mentioned he had purchased footwear for Mr. Suga as a result of he “quickly wore them down” going door to door to go to voters within the district.

The Sugas had three sons, however in a debate final week, Mr. Suga admitted that he was not often residence as they have been rising up.

In 1987, he ran for a seat on the Metropolis Council in Yokohama, the place he turned generally known as a “shadow” Yokohama mayor. He helped develop transportation hyperlinks to the port and pushed to decrease ready lists at metropolis daycare facilities.

“He has four eyes and four ears,” Koichi Fujishiro, a former chairman of the Yokohama Metropolis Council, mentioned in a phone interview. “He worked from morning to late at night.”

In 1996, Mr. Suga made the leap to nationwide politics, successful a seat within the decrease home of Parliament. Throughout Mr. Abe’s first, fumbling stint as prime minister, from 2006 to 2007, Mr. Suga served as minister of inside affairs and telecommunications. Even after Mr. Abe left workplace following a sequence of scandals, Mr. Suga remained loyal.

Mr. Abe rewarded that loyalty when he got here again as prime minister in 2012 and selected Mr. Suga as his chief cupboard secretary. In keeping with Kenya Matsuda, creator of “Shadow Power: Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga,” Mr. Suga urged Mr. Abe to concentrate on the financial system quite than the nationalist agenda that had consumed his first time period.

Final 12 months, Mr. Suga took some steps to return out of the shadows. When the government officially unveiled the name of the new era marking the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito, it was Mr. Suga who dramatically revealed a calligraphic rendering of the identify, Reiwa, incomes him the sobriquet “Uncle Reiwa.”

Mr. Suga has additionally trumpeted his brainchild, a system that enables residents to donate cash to native governments in trade for domestically sourced items. Many small-town governments, nevertheless, have misplaced cash by spending extra on items like marbled Wagyu beef or shipments of fresh lobsters than they raised in donations.

On international coverage, Mr. Suga has labored to fill holes in his portfolio. He visited Washington final 12 months, the primary chief cupboard secretary to make such a visit in three many years.

For Mr. Abe, private diplomacy with President Trump has been essential. If Mr. Trump wins re-election, the query, mentioned Ms. Solis, of the Brookings Establishment, “is whether Suga can work the magic, or whether that was a bromance between Trump and Abe not to be repeated again.”

Hikari Hida and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.

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