Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga once earned the nickname “shadow prime minister.” But a recent personnel reshuffle inside the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) highlighted his waning influence.
The promotion of METI’s trade policy bureau chief, Takashi Shimada, to the ministry’s vice-minister, grabbed much attention among Kasumigaseki bureaucrats. Shimada won this post thanks to the backing extended by Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko and Takaya Imai, an executive policy secretary to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Suga, who kept opposing this appointment, failed to wield influence.
Before Shimada’s promotion to vice-minister was officially announced, there was a firm rumor within Kasumigaseki that Natural Resources and Energy Agency Commissioner Satoshi Kusakabe, who has earned Suga’s trust, would be tapped for the post. Thus Shimada’s pick left the strong impression that Suga’s political clout has ebbed.
This personnel appointment also became a focus of attention within the Nagatacho political arena because it could become a yardstick to gauge Suga’s political clout.
Shimada rose as a promising candidate for METI’s top post a year ago. Then METI Vice-Minister Ikuro Sugawara suggested to Suga that Shimada, the deputy vice-minister at the ministry, be tapped as his successor. But Suga said coldly, “Shimada should go; we’ve many promising candidates who joined the ministry in the same year as him.” This political intervention sent a chill down the spines of Kasumigaseki bureaucrats.
The feud between Suga and Shimada erupted when Shimada spearheaded efforts to give a facelift to Tokyo Electric Power Co. as head of coordination division at the Nuclear Damage Compensation Corporation. Shimada relentlessly bumped company’s executives close to former President Tsunehisa Katsumata and moved them to subsidiaries. He continued to wield influence in TEPCO’s reform even after he returned to METI as deputy vice-minister.
Then-TEPCO President Naomi Hirose, a pro-Katsumata force, asked Suga to rein in Shimada. Suga met with Shimada via Imai, who joined METI in the same year as Shimada, and asked him to reform TEPCO in an appropriate manner. But he responded to Suga’s request in a condescending note. That infuriated Suga.
Suga’s political clout, however, began to fray as he made a blunder in dealing with the veterinary medicine school scandal involving the Kake Educational Institution. He lost Abe’s trust and his influence quickly faded.
Even inside Nagatacho, criticism against Suga began to mount from people who are close to Abe but were being treated coldly by Suga. Not only Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Yasuhisa Shiozaki but also former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani among others demanded Suga be replaced with Katsunobu Kato.
Around ten days before Shimada’s promotion to the vice-minister post was officially announced, Seko, with Shimda, was in Washington and already introducing Shimda to senior U.S. officials as the “next head at METI, who will become a tough negotiator.” Along with the announcement of Shimada’s promotion to vice-minister, Kozo Saiki also made headlines as he was tapped as secretary to the prime minister. These personnel appointments should have been proposed to Suga beforehand for approval. But this time, Imai made the decision and informed Suga afterwards.
Suga has long held power over personnel reshuffling in Kasumigaseki and broadened his influence. Bureaucrats are gloating over his fall. (Abridged)