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‘More Dangerous Than Mr Abe’: Japan’s Next Prime Minister Emerges From Behind the Curtain

Yoshihide Suga is virtually assured to be elected Japan’ next prime minister during a special session this week. (Photo: Reuters)

Yoshihide Suga is virtually assured to be elected Japan’ next prime minister during a special session this week. (Photo: Reuters)

In Japan, where stability often outweighs ideology, Yoshihide Suga has appealed to a tradition-bound political establishment that resists change.

Yoshihide Suga charted an unlikely course to the cusp of Japan’s premiership. While most leading Japanese lawmakers come from elite political families, Suga is the son of a strawberry farmer and a schoolteacher from the country’s rural north. He is known more for expressionless recitations of government policy than flashes of charisma. And at 71, he is even older than Shinzo Abe, who suddenly announced in late August that he was resigning as prime minister because of ill health.

Yet on Monday, Suga, the longtime chief Cabinet secretary to Abe, was overwhelmingly elected as leader of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party during a conclave at a luxury Tokyo hotel. The party has governed Japan for all but four years since World War II and controls Parliament, virtually assuring that Suga will be elected prime minister during a special session this week.

He will have to hit the ground running. Suga will take office in the middle of a pandemic that has devastated Japan’s economy, effectively erasing years of growth under Abe. Japan also is facing deepening pressure from China and North Korea. And it is losing a prime minister who built his foreign policy legacy partly on successful management of President Donald Trump, the mercurial leader of Japan’s most important strategic ally.

While Suga has vowed to pick up where Abe left off, he has never clearly articulated his own vision for Japan, the world’s third-largest economy. “Generally, politicians have at least a facade of expressing ideals,” said Megumi Naoi, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, who said she would usually expect “policy statements about the ‘type of world that I want to see.’”

Despite nearly a quarter-century in national politics, Suga, who served essentially as Abe’s chief of staff and as the main government spokesman, “hasn’t really come out with very strong policies,” Naoi said.

Still, news of his ascendance appeared to have reassured the nation after a string of revolving-door prime ministers. And in Japan, where stability often outweighs ideology, Suga appealed to a tradition-bound political establishment that resists change.

In many ways, Suga seems like yet another in a long line of dour Japanese politicians. The most exciting nugget to emerge in recent news reports is the revelation that Suga, a teetotaler with a sweet tooth, starts and ends each day with 100 situps. On his website he says he likes river fishing and karate.

Suga, who declined a request for an interview, has promised to pursue some of the departing prime minister’s most cherished goals. He is expected to further push for a revision of Japan’s pacifist Constitution and the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea. He has also said he would roughly stick to Abe’s signature economic formula, known as Abenomics, combining easy monetary policy, government spending and structural changes of industries like agriculture.

After showing a tiny sign that he might stake out new policy — a potential increase in a tax that has hampered consumer spending — Suga quickly backtracked. With global turbulence from the coronavirus pandemic and rising geopolitical threats in Asia, many Japanese may feel that a successor who stays the course may be just what the country needs.

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

Suga may epitomize the status quo, but he has been a catalyst for significant change. He is credited with helping Abe push through contentious security laws that allow Japan’s military to join overseas combat missions alongside allies. He was also considered a strong proponent of a bill, passed two years ago, authorizing a sharp increase in the number of foreign workers permitted in Japan.

Some glimpses of his political hand have raised concerns. Critics say Suga was the architect behind some of Abe’s more authoritarian impulses, including his consolidation of power over Japan’s extensive bureaucracy and tactics to silence criticism in the news media.

“I think Mr. Suga is more dangerous than Mr. Abe,” Kihei Maekawa, a former vice education minister, told The Sunday Mainichi, a weekly magazine. With Suga as prime minister, Maekawa predicted, “bureaucrats will be servants or act as a private military.”

But perhaps the biggest question — which arose after Suga became the front-runner — is just how long he might last. The answer may hinge on, among other things, his handling of the pandemic, the postponed Tokyo Olympics and the increasing tensions with China.

There are suggestions that Suga might call a snap election soon after he takes over. If successful, he could strengthen his hold on power. If not, said Ken Hijino, a professor of law at Kyoto University, “maybe this is just an interim leader, and they will come up with some surprise younger, more attractive face to go into the general election.” But for now, Suga appears to enjoy considerable public support, with more than 50% of those surveyed in a national poll last week backing him to be prime minister.

While voters see Suga and Abe as something of a pair, their family backgrounds could hardly be more different. Abe is a third-generation politician and the grandson of a prime minister; Suga had an unremarkable upbringing in rural Akita prefecture, along with two older sisters and a younger brother.

“He was so quiet that no one paid attention to him,” said Hiroshi Kawai, a high school classmate who works as a tour guide in Suga’s hometown, Yuzawa City.

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

Motoko Rich and Makiko Inoue c.2020 The New York Times Company

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