Interview by Koichi Mochizuki
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga is the longest-serving chief cabinet secretary in Japan’s history. He is the “key person” in Abe’s cabinet which was reshuffled in August for the third time. The Yomiuri Shimbun spoke with Suga about the issues facing the administration going forward.
Q: What are the goals of the Abe cabinet now that it has won the House of Councillors election and reshuffled the cabinet and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership?
Suga: We will focus on the economy as the top priority in the Diet session to be convened on Sept. 26. The economic package worth over 28 trillion yen includes not only measures to stimulate consumption but also measures to encourage investment in the future. For this reason, we would like to have the supplementary budget passed as soon as possible.
The leaders of all 12 member nations reached agreement on the TPP. While there are various opinions in the U.S., I am sure the U.S. will ratify the trade agreement because President Obama has made a commitment. The Japanese government will do everything it can to ensure the accord is ratified in the upcoming Diet session.
Q: The security environment is becoming increasingly harsh as North Korea continues to launch ballistic missiles.
Suga: Since the inauguration of the Abe cabinet, the state secrets law and the peace and security laws have been enacted. I think it is really good that we have made such preparations. Cooperation between Japan and the U.S. has been greatly enhanced. It is the government’s responsibility to protect the people and ensure they can enjoy peaceful lives. To do this, we will collect and analyze information in close cooperation with the U.S. We are ready to respond at any time day or night.
Q: In terms of foreign policy, the Japan-Russia relationship is in the spotlight now as an agreement has been reached for President Putin to visit Japan this year. Will it be possible for progress to be made on the Northern Territories issue, a question that has been left unresolved for the 71 years since the end of World War II?
Suga: The two countries have not been able to sign a peace treaty over the 71 years since the end of World War II. This is a top priority issue for the Abe administration. Prime Minister Abe and President Putin have engaged in many rounds of dialogue and been truly candid with each other. In Vladivostok, too, they engaged in a one-on-one discussion with only the interpreters present. Japan’s basic thinking is that the issue of jurisdiction over the four Northern Islands needs to be resolved for the two countries to conclude a peace treaty. We are working hard along these lines. Prime Minister Abe is also scheduled to meet with President Putin at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in November. They will talk in a quiet environment when President Putin visits Japan in December and travels to Prime Minister Abe’s hometown in Yamaguchi. I believe that discussions like this are very important.
Q: As a result of the recent election, Diet members amenable to constitutional revision now hold a two-thirds majority in the Upper House as well [as in the Lower House]. This has stimulated a lively debate on constitutional amendment.
Suga: Constitutional revision is part of the LDP’s founding spirit, and the party has worked on this over the years. We are also fully aware that amendment will not be easy. The important thing is for the Commissions on the Constitution in the two Houses of the Diet to deepen their discussions and come up with an overall direction. This is not something to be done arbitrarily.
Environmental issues are very important today, but such a viewpoint did not exist at the time the Constitution was promulgated. It is indeed necessary to have in-depth discussions on issues that arise with the change in the times. In addition to the environment, there are also various opinions on government subsidies for private schools. It is important to deepen the debate on the various relevant issues. Since ultimately, constitutional amendment will require the approval of a majority of the people in a national referendum, I think it is probably time for the Commissions on the Constitution to engage in honest deliberations and submit the matter to a vote by the people.
Q: In a recent message, Emperor Akihito indicated his wish to abdicate.
Suga: The government takes Emperor Akihito’s message very seriously. I am now working on this issue at the order of Prime Minister Abe. We are considering the possible options in light of the constitutional provision that stipulates that the emperor is the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people. I think one option is to create an experts’ panel to study this matter. Prime Minister Abe also takes the message seriously and has said that we need to thoroughly consider this issue. In light of his instructions, I believe that, while we need to be cautious, we should not put off this matter.
Q: The LDP has started to discuss extending Prime Minister Abe’s term as LDP president.
Suga: Since Prime Minister Abe assumed office, he has won five consecutive elections: two Lower House elections, two Upper House elections, plus the unified local elections. This is a first in the LDP’s long history.
Q: Some say that it is not necessary to talk about this issue right now. However, if the extension is decided close to the end of Prime Minister Abe’s term in 2018, it will be seen as having been undertaken for his sake.
Suga: This is not a question of extending Prime Minister Abe’s term. It is a fact that many foreign leaders serve for many years. In consideration of national interests, I think the LDP president’s term should also be longer.
There have been cases of extension of the LDP president’s term in the past. During Prime Minister Koizumi’s time, his term was extended from two to three years. In any case, no prime minister can stay in office for long without obtaining the people’s mandate. This issue should be discussed within the context of overall national politics.
Q: As of the end of July, you have served in your position for over 1,290 days, making you the longest-serving chief cabinet secretary in history, and you continue to break the record.
Suga: An administration cannot move forward without a certain amount of support from the people and the party. What I strive for most is to be seen by the people to be doing what needs to be done. Moreover, politicians cannot move this country forward without clarifying what needs to be done and offering the fullest explanation possible to the people. I think this is very important. I will never forget how I felt at the time we recaptured political power, and I will work steadily to do what needs to be done to meet the people’s needs in a humble and thorough manner.