TOKYO — Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a longtime loyal assistant and the public face of outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in daily media briefings, has emerged as a favorite to succeed him in an upcoming internal party vote.
A member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who doesn’t belong to any faction, Suga has been approached by leaders of other party wings as someone who can ensure the continuation of Abe’s policies, including Japan’s security alliance with the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic and measures to shore up the economy.
Suga is set to announce his candidacy and key policies later Wednesday, a day after former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba expressed their intention to run for the post.
Ruling party executives met Tuesday and decided that the Sept. 14 vote for the party leader — and consequently the prime minister — will be limited to lawmakers and selected prefectural representatives. Ishiba is not seen as popular among LDP parliamentarians due to his anti-Abe stance, but he is a favorite in public opinion polls.
The son of a strawberry grower in the northern prefecture of Akita, Suga is a self-made politician, a rarity in Japan’s largely hereditary business of politics. He earned his own tuition while working several part-time jobs to graduate from a university in Tokyo. He entered politics as secretary to a lawmaker for 11 years and served as a city assemblyman for nearly nine years before he was elected to parliament in 1994.
As Japan’s longest-serving chief Cabinet secretary, Suga is a policy coordinator and adviser to Abe — the point man behind the centralized power of the Prime Minister’s Office that influences bureaucrats to implement policies. Suga is also known to have helped smooth out differences by keeping close ties with both LDP heavyweight Toshihiro Nikai and a centrist coalition partner, Komeito.
He has earned a reputation for his matter-of-fact twice-daily televised media briefings. He’s become known as “Uncle Reiwa” after he was tasked with unveiling the new imperial era name for Emperor Naruhito last year.
Despite his soft-spoken and low-key image, Suga, who is also in charge of Okinawa, has offended local leaders with his heavy-handed approach to push the central government’s policy in a dispute over the relocation of a U.S. Marine air station to another spot on the southern island. Suga also invited protests last year over his hostile responses to a newspaper reporter asking tough questions criticizing Abe policies.
But Suga has been a loyal supporter of Abe since his first stint as prime minister from 2006-2007, which abruptly ended because of Abe’s chronic illness, and helped him return to power in 2012. Abe, who has had ulcerative colitis since he was a teenager, last week announced he would resign.
Asked about key policies that a post-Abe government should tackle, Suga noted coronavirus measures as the biggest challenge. The Japan-U.S. security alliance, developed through the friendship between Abe and President Donald Trump, “needs to be further deepened” within the limitations of Japan’s pacifist constitution, he said.
The two other contenders, Kishida and Ishiba, said that Abe’s policies tended to ignore the voices of ordinary people and that they intent to address the economic and social divisions that had widened under Abe. Neither man has proposed any major changes in Japan’s security and diplomatic policies.
The next prime minister will finish the rest of Abe’s term, until September 2021. There are no women contenders.
Abe’s successor will also have to grapple with the Tokyo Olympics that has been postponed to next summer, setting Japan’s security policy in the face of an increasingly assertive China, and the outcome of the presidential election in the U.S., Japan’s key ally.