(Sentaku: November 2015 – pp. 48-50)
An interesting tool for political reporters to know Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a politician and a person is to follow the PM’s daily schedule carried by the newspapers. For example, he is known to eat out a lot and likes meat. Prior to major diplomatic events, he sees Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki frequently, while he is sure to see Deputy Prime Minister cum Finance Minister Taro Aso or Vice Finance Minister Kazuho Tanaka when there are budget formulation or tax issues.
However, there is a glaring mystery zone in Abe’s daily activities compared to previous prime ministers, i.e. his right-hand man Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga rarely features in his schedule. Suga uses a hallway that political reporters cannot monitor to access the PM’s office.
Suga, no doubt, is the man who spent the most time with Abe, but what is he like? He does not drink, avoids over-eating, never misses his morning walk, and is extremely health conscious. He is a quiet man, but his silence is compelling.
One of his greatest strengths is he does not belong to any faction even though he is the closest man to the prime minister. It is precisely his being a lone wolf that allows him to take in “allies” as necessary.
However, he leaves almost no trace of his contacts with other politicians. A typical case is his relationship with Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) General Council chair Toshihiro Nikai. After the LDP’s defeat in the Saga gubernatorial election last January, which signaled that Abe’s agricultural cooperative reform was in peril, the agricultural cooperative reform law still passed the LDP General Council without incident. This would have been impossible without backstage dealing between Suga and Nikai.
Nikai presented Abe’s personal letter to President Xi Jinping during his visit to China in May. Suga is also said to be involved with this.
Nikai was one of the first LDP heavyweights to announce his support for Abe’s reelection as LDP president last September even though he and Abe take exact opposite positions on foreign and economic policy. Suga is the link between the two.
However, the question is how much coordination is there between Abe and Suga. Does Abe know about everything Suga is doing or is Suga sometimes doing things over his head? Unravelling this inscrutable relationship is perhaps the key to analyzing the heart of the Abe administration.
Suga acted in an inexplicable manner during the LDP presidential election. Former General Council chair Seiko Noda, with the support of LDP elder Makoto Koga, honorary chairman of the Kishida faction, obtained over 20 endorsements and was ready to run. Noda recalled that, “The night before the official filing of candidacy, a phone call came from the Kantei while I was talking with some of the people who endorsed me at the Imperial Hotel and then the situation changed suddenly.” Needless to say, “Kantei” meant Suga. Noda’s candidacy became an impossible dream.
Suga is also said to be behind the Japan Innovation Party’s (JIP) breakup. In the first place, it was Suga who launched Toru Hashimoto into politics. He consistently supported Hashimoto’s concept of an Osaka metropolis, in the hope of getting his support for the security laws. Regardless of the outcome of the unfolding JIP political drama, Suga is certain to retain his influence in the Kinki region through Hashimoto. It is common knowledge that Suga’s relationship with Soka Gakkai vice chairman Hiroshi Sato holds the key to LDP-Komeito cooperation in elections.
It appears that Suga works quietly day and night to exercise his influence on powerful individuals and organizations and he shows unfailing loyalty to Abe. This seems to be the greatest source of the Abe administration’s stability. But why is he working so hard?
For forces waiting for Abe to step down after his three years as LDP president, Suga is indeed the most coveted ally. Yet, the possibility of Suga himself emerging as the leader, whether he and Abe like it or not, cannot be ruled out completely. A LDP elder warned that, “Abe’s greatest enemy is Suga. If you forget that, you will be mistaken in deciphering the political trends.” (Summary)