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CCS Suga on Abe administration’s domestic, foreign, economic policies

Interview by commentator Ushio Shiota


The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe marked its fifth anniversary on Dec. 26. He owes his prolonged hold on power to the consolidation of a regime of absolute political predominance, which can be attributed to the weakness of the opposition parties, his consecutive electoral victories, and the “Kantei’s leadership” presided over by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.


Abe’s term as Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president will expire in September. How will he face the formidable issues of the North Korea crisis, constitutional revision, economic management, preventing a military conflict between Japan and China, and so forth? Suga, the key member of his team, talks about the outlook and direction of “Abe politics in its sixth year.”


Q: What are the key issues the Abe administration is facing this year?


Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga: First, the ceremonies for the Emperor’s abdication, the Crown Prince’s accession to the throne, and the determination of a new era name. Another issue is North Korea. This will be a time for the sanctions under the UN resolutions of last August, September, and December to show their effects. North Korea will reach a critical point to change its policies.


Q: What do you think of the developments in North Korea and the situation on the Korean Peninsula?


Suga: The nuclear test last year was 10 times the scale of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Also, North Korea has improved its ballistic missile technology. I regard this as the most serious threat since World War II. Japan will not be able to defend itself alone, so it is the government’s responsibility to further consolidate the pivotal Japan-U.S. alliance to protect the people’s lives and peaceful living. We maintain a system for shooting down missiles that fly over Japanese territory and territorial waters in cooperation with the U.S.


Q: Have there been any changes in the Japan-U.S. alliance under the Trump administration?


Suga: I am glad we are working with the Trump administration. We approached President Barack Obama many times on the North Korea situation, but his policy was “strategic patience.” Partly because North Korea threatened to fire ballistic missiles at Guam, President Donald Trump has begun to consider this issue as the U.S.’s problem as well.


Q: In the event Japan suffers an armed attack, will the U.S. really come to its rescue with the resolve to go to war?


Suga: It is inconceivable for the U.S. to remain indifferent. It has stated repeatedly that it will defend its allies.


Q: Has the Kantei been making concrete preparations to respond to a crisis on the assumption of a “contingency”?


Suga: We maintain high vigilance 24 hours a day, 365 days in a year. We obtain information through the Japan-U.S. alliance and are prepared to respond to all eventualities.


Q: Concerns have been voiced on the Japan-China relationship.


Suga: I am not worried at all. Relations with China are moving toward improvement and going well. Prime Minister Abe’s meetings with the Chinese leaders went well and the discussions on the bilateral air and sea liaison mechanism for preventing military conflicts were very good. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the bilateral Treaty of Peace and Friendship. We will rebuild the Japan-China relationship. Our goal is to realize a Japan-China-ROK summit and reciprocal visits by the leaders of both countries. The Japan-China-ROK summit will probably take place in spring.


Q: What do you think of the current state of the economy five years after the start of Abenomics?


Suga: I believe our policies are definitely beginning to produce results. The most recent figure released on nominal GDP was a record 549 trillion yen. The effective opening-to-job applicant ratio is also 1.56, the highest level in 43 years.


Q: It would seem that the Abe administration’s economic policies are shifting to emphasis on wealth distribution recently. Has the concept behind Abenomics changed?


Suga: There has been no change at all. The benefits of Abenomics will be felt through distribution. In the past, 80% of the extra revenue from the consumption tax increase was used to repay debts and 20% for investment. This time we are taking the bold step of using 50% for childcare support. This is a shift to investment in the future. We want to promote economic growth by increasing the people’s disposable income. The tax increase will have little negative impact on the economy.


Basically, we are promoting Abenomics and banking on the synergy effect of the government’s distribution policy and economic growth.


Q: The term of the Bank of Japan governor will expire this spring.


Suga: Both the Prime Minister and I have high regard for the monetary easing policy implemented by Governor Haruhiko Kuroda.


Q: You mean Mr. Kuroda may serve another term?


Suga: We have not thought about this. However, we give his policies high marks.


Q: Are you saying even if there will be a change of governor, the new governor will carry on his policies?


Suga: I believe there is no need to change the monetary policy.


Q: There are still many people who call for a thorough investigation into the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen affairs.


Suga: The Kake Gakuen issue is a National Strategic Special Zones (NSSZ) project that started over 10 years ago during the Fukuda cabinet. We have no idea why it has become a problem now. The concerned parties have clearly stated that Prime Minister Abe issued no instructions and was not involved. What Mr. Kihei Maekawa (former vice minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology) said was completely different from what I said. I had received reports even before this became a problem and everything was done in an open manner.


There is the question of management of public documents in the Kake issue. The Board of Audit also pointed out certain problems with the Moritomo issue. It is important that we take this seriously and offer thorough explanations.


Q: In your five years as chief cabinet secretary, have you ever felt you made a mistake?


Suga: I wouldn’t say it was a mistake but in the deliberations on the special state secrets protection law and the security legislation, I thought people would understand if we explained the contents, but it was not easy. When we tried to clear up people’s misunderstandings by explaining to them “that’s improbable,” we still could not make them understand. It was very tough.


Q: What do you pay particular attention to in your job?


Suga: It’s impossible to predict what will happen, so I am always conscientious and mindful of how to deal with all sorts of situations, and I exercise strict self-discipline.


Q: How is your relationship with Prime Minister Abe?


Suga: We communicate closely all the time. Otherwise, there will be suspicions. When we were deciding on the first head of the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, I told the Prime Minister it would be best for the deputy chief cabinet secretary for political affairs to serve concurrently in this capacity. He said: “Sure, I’ll leave it to you.” Yet the newspapers and TV reported that the deputy chief cabinet secretary for administrative affairs was going to be given that position, so I thought he must have changed his mind. However, when I asked him, he said: “I thought you changed your mind.” The two of us had a good laugh.


Q: I heard you have extraordinary ability in controlling the bureaucrats.


Suga: I believe (the bureaucrats) should obey once the political authorities make a decision. While we will listen to their opinions, we are the ones who will have to take responsibility. We persuade the bureaucrats, recognize those who work properly and make great efforts, but do not appreciate those who fail to do so. We want to make this very clear.


When I was minister of internal affairs and communications, I wanted to open the State Guest House in Akasaka to the public as a tourism resource of Japan, but I was not able to do so. Since the Guest House falls under the chief cabinet secretary’s jurisdiction, I started working on this project again after I took office, but the bureaucrats kept citing reasons why this was not possible. It is a matter of course that the people’s property should be opened to them.


We won in the election and took power with a pledge to implement Abenomics, so it is also quite natural that the bureaucrats should work for this.


Q: Is the Kantei using control over the appointment of senior ministry officials through its control over the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs as a weapon to control the bureaucrats?


Suga: That is not true. However, we are an administration that puts forth clear policies through political leadership in our quest to implement reforms. There are many people who still think the old ways were better. The administration cannot be pleased with officials who are negative about the cabinet working together for a policy direction decided by the government. That’s our basic position.


Q: Have you observed any major changes in Prime Minister Abe in the five years after his political comeback?


Suga: None at all. He is a considerate person. I have never seen him carry out uncompromising high-handed politics. I think he gives consideration to a lot of things.


Q: How is his health?


Suga: He is very healthy and there is no cause for concern at all. He looks exhausted after a long overseas trip, but otherwise, there’s no problem at all.


Q: The Democratic Party split into four in the last general election. What do you think of the situation with regard to the opposition parties?


Suga: Each party is saying all sorts of things, but the question is their actions. People who joined the Party of Hope are now saying completely different things from what they said before joining the party. This situation may result in distrust in politics. I think it is important to make good on what was pledged during the election.


Q: A full-fledged debate on constitutional revision is expected to take place this year. What do you think of the constitutional issues?


Suga: The LDP’s policy is for Japan to promulgate a constitution independently and to make the constitution reflect reality. We are moving in that direction. However, not much progress was being made in the debate, so the Prime Minister conveyed a message on the 70th anniversary of the effectuation of the Constitution last May to spur debate. All parties should spell out their views on the constitution for discussion.


Q: Is Prime Minister Abe keen to accomplish constitutional revision while he is in office?


Suga: Of course, since he is the president of the LDP. Constitutional revision was one of our pledges in the general election last year.


Q: Submitting motions for constitutional amendment will require the support of a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet. The LDP, Komeito, the Party of Hope, and Nippon Ishin [Japan Innovation Party] together control only two seats more than the two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors. What will happen in the Upper House election in summer next year is unpredictable. So, is he planning to settle the constitutional revision issue before the Upper House election?


Suga: The Prime Minister thinks that there is no predetermined schedule. I believe that he only made his proposal because things would not move forward if he did not do something.


Q: Do you have any objections to this challenge to revise the constitution?


Suga: None at all.


Q: Aren’t there certain differences between constitutional revision as envisioned by Prime Minister Abe and the LDP’s pledge?


Suga: I suppose there are differences if you compare his remarks over time. However, the Prime Minister feels that he owes this to the members of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) because they are always asked to do things when something happens to the people. It is irresponsible to tell them, “You might be unconstitutional, but stake your life on doing things for us when something happens.” He has a strong desire to have an explicit provision in the constitution. It is important for all parties to present their views and engage in constructive discussions.


Q: The constitution may become a point of contention in the LDP presidential election in September.


Suga: All LDP members joined this party whose policy is constitutional revision.


Q: It has been decided that the change of emperor will take place on April 30 and May 1, 2019. Will this have any effect on constitutional revision?


Suga: I don’t think so. This is not an issue in the constitutional debate.


Q: The consumption tax rate is expected to be raised in the fall of 2019.


Suga: The important thing is to create the conditions that will make the increase possible. It would be completely disastrous if the tax hike results in economic recession. It is necessary to promote Abenomics vigorously in order to create the environment for the tax increase.


Q: Do you have any specific numerical criteria for determining whether the time is right for the tax hike?


Suga: The Prime Minister is saying that the tax increase will be implemented barring a situation comparable to the Lehman Shock. I agree with him.


Q: Do you think the situation is now different from that during the two times the tax increase was postponed?


Suga: I think the economy has changed; it is stronger now. The purposes for which the increased tax revenue will be used will be changed to lessen the impact on the economy.


Q: When will the final decision be made?


Suga: The tax hike is scheduled for October next year, so the decision will have to be made one year or more in advance.

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