(Nikkei: April 26, 2015 – p. 4)
By Hiroyuki Akiyama, Koya Jibiki
By May 8, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who is the backbone of the Abe administration, will have served in this position for 864 days, becoming the fourth longest serving chief cabinet secretary in history.
There have been several cases in the past of chief cabinet secretaries — who serve as the coordinator for the administration’s key policies — supporting long-lasting administrations. Some were of the “confidant type,” who knew the prime minister inside out from long years of working together, while others are of the “adviser type,” who offer advice that influenced the prime minister’s decisions at important junctures in the political situation or policymaking. We took a look at what Suga, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s right-hand man, is really like.
In October 2014, right after Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yuko Obuchi and Justice Minister Midori Matsushima resigned over “politics and money” scandals, Suga suggested to Abe: “Why don’t you dissolve (the House of Representatives) in November?” Since March, the two had been looking for the right timing to dissolve the Lower House over the issue of delaying the increase of the consumption tax to 10% out of concern over its impact on the economy. With the resignation of the two ministers, Suga urged Abe to make the decision.
Diet deliberation of several political issues that might turn into adverse winds for the administration, such as the reactivation of nuclear plants and security legislation, were expected in 2015. Suga and others concealed the Prime Minister’s plan to dissolve the Lower House at an early date to coincide with the consumption tax hike decision, so the opposition, which had thought that dissolution would still be far off, did not have enough time to make preparations for an election. There is no doubt that Suga was behind this decision of Abe’s.
Abe and Suga’s working relationship started in 2002, during the Koizumi administration. At that time, Suga, who was serving his second term in the Lower House, was advocating at Liberal Democratic Party meetings and elsewhere a bill initiated by lawmakers to ban the entry of the North Korean ship Mangyongbong-92. Abe, deputy chief cabinet secretary at the time, was also pushing for applying pressure on North Korea in the Prime Minister’s Official Residence [Kantei]. He teamed up with Suga. They dined together frequently and gradually became very close.
Suga supported Seiroku Kajiyama, his mentor, in the LDP presidential election of 1998, which Kajiyama lost. On the other hand, Abe was becoming a politician to be reckoned with as he accompanied Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on his North Korea trip and participated in dealing with other issues. It appears that it was at that time that Suga came to recognize Abe as the person he wanted to support as the next leader. Even compared with other Diet members close to Abe – such as Minister of Health, Labor, and Welfare Yasuhisa Shiozaki who has been a friend of Abe since they were young, or Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura, who shares Abe’s conservative convictions – Suga was able to win Abe’s trust for his ability to take action and his record of doing a good job.
When the missing records of public pension premium payments became a big problem during the first Abe administration, Abe turned to Suga, who was then minister of internal affairs and communications, and not to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, to look into this case.
Suga began to work for Abe’s political comeback soon after he stepped down in 2007. He pressed Abe to run in the LDP presidential election in August 2012, when the party was still sitting on the opposition bench, telling him: “If you miss this opportunity, I’m not sure if you will have another chance.” When Abe hesitated, he showed him the results of various opinion polls and convinced him that if he managed to place second in the first ballot, he would be able to win the runoff vote.
However, Suga had not always guided the prime minister in the right direction. In 2008 during the Aso administration, when senior LDP officials were clamoring for Aso to dissolve the Lower House at an early date in order to minimize the party’s electoral losses, Suga, who was a senior member of the LDP Election Strategy Headquarters and close to Aso, persisted in opposing this idea. As a result, the LDP suffered a crushing defeat in the Lower House election in August 2009, losing its hold on political power. Even today, some LDP officials still lament the mistake in deciding the timing of the election.
Yasuo Fukuda, who was chief cabinet secretary to Prime Ministers Yoshiro Mori and Junichiro Koizumi, holds the record for the longest serving chief cabinet secretary.
Strives to exchange ideas with people in a wide range of sectors
Suga meets frequently with journalists, economists, other private citizens in a broad range of sectors, as well as officials of foreign embassies in Tokyo. He makes it a point to gather information first before making up his mind on issues.
Suntory Holdings President Niinami visited Suga at the Kantei on April 15 to introduce Universal Studios Japan (USJ) President Glenn Gumpel. USJ is planning a new theme park in Okinawa and Niinami arranged for this meeting thinking this would be good for the government’s Okinawa policy.
In the economic sphere, Suga exchanges views often with Keio University Professor Takenaka. When Suga was senior vice minister of internal affairs and communications under the Koizumi administration, Takenaka was his boss. He sought the advice of Future Architect Chairman and CEO Yasufumi Kanemaru on agricultural cooperative reform. When the launch of the Abenomics policies were in the limelight, Suga actively met with Daniel Loeb, who had demanded the separation of the entertainment business from Sony, and other executives of U.S. investment funds.
In terms of diplomacy, Suga dines with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy every month to seek her understanding of Japan’s interpretation of history and other issues. He built a good relationship with Lee Byung-ki, the ROK presidential chief of staff, when he was South Korean ambassador to Japan, dining with him regularly. The two still talk over the phone on pending issues. (Slightly abridged)
Suga’s personal profile
Height: 166 centimeters
Weight: 65 kilograms
Birthplace: Yuzawa City, Akita Prefecture
Hobby: mountain stream fishing
Connections in the economic sector: Keio University Professor Heizo Takenaka
Suntory Holdings President Takeshi Niinami, etc.