Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga visits Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s office on the fifth floor of the Kantei several times a day. Each time, he bows and says: “Shitsurei shimasu [May I come in?]” While Abe casually addresses Suga, who is older than him, as “Suga-chan,” Suga always addresses him formally as “Mr. Prime Minister.”
Long-time political journalist Shiro Tasaki notes that Suga’s “loyalty” to the Prime Minister is his most awesome trait.
Suga, who has been chief cabinet secretary since the start of the second Abe administration, has been in his job for five years and eight months, breaking Yasuo Fukuda’s record of three years and seven months, and every day he continues to extend his record as the longest serving chief cabinet secretary.
Suga has held a total of nearly 2,400 news conferences, prompting some people to joke that he should apply to get on the Guiness Book of Records.
Since he took up his position in December 2012, Suga has never stayed overnight in his house in Yokohama. The Abe administration could not have lasted this long without the devotion of Suga, who commutes from the Diet members’ dormitory in Akasaka.
The proposal to reduce cellphone charges by 40% that popped up suddenly in August was actually the product of a carefully calculated move by Suga.
Suga told his aides: “The economic package consisting of free education etc. will not be good enough for the consumption tax increase in October next year. If the government doesn’t have money to spend, let the cellphone companies pay.”
This was a perfectly timed move to win support for Abe in the LDP presidential election. He had also engaged in prior consultation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. The cellphone companies could not object. Abe was delighted when he saw the news reports, remarking, “Great move, Suga-chan.”
It is a well-known fact that Suga created the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs and has thus been able to control the bureaucrats’ appointments. He learned how to control the bureaucracy from his mentor, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama, who told him:
“Bureaucrats have their own thinking and they are geniuses at giving explanations in order to incorporate their thinking in policies. You tend to be easily deceived. You must have the ability to see through their schemes.”
Suga has followed this advice ever since.
Suga first came into the limelight as chief cabinet secretary in January 2013 during the hostage crisis in Algeria. He ordered the dispatch of government planes to evacuate Japanese citizens there.
This unprecedented measure was opposed by the Defense Ministry, the Finance Ministry, and the Foreign Ministry. Suga defied them and won the support of the public.
However, Suga’s quick decisionmaking does not mean he acts on impulse. Suga is at his best when it comes to collecting information and prior consensus building.
He wakes up at 5:00 a.m. and browses all the newspapers before he goes on his daily walk. At 7:00 a.m., he goes to The Capital Hotel Tokyu to have breakfast meetings, inviting not only the reporters assigned to cover him, but also freelance journalists, junior bureaucrats, academics, and a great variety of other people. He often attends two separate gatherings in the evenings. He goes back to his dormitory at 10:00 p.m., where he holds informal meetings with reporters.
These meetings often result in inscrutable exchanges because “by talking to the reporters, [Suga] is simply trying to gauge the mood of the public. Every single minute of his waking hours is used for information gathering,” according to a Kantei official.
Suga is very thorough in his thoughtfulness. He even sends flowers on their birthdays to Diet members who consistently criticize Abe. He calls the first-term Diet members on the phone and encourages them to tell him if they need anything, consenting to their requests to attend parties and give speeches in their constituencies. After he holds his regular yearend news conferences, he starts calling the freelance journalists from his car to thank them for their support in the past year.
The so-called “Suga Group” of Diet members has been quietly gaining members. A junior Diet member says: “He has organized several nebulous groups, such as the Ganesha-no-kai, Idaten-no-kai, and secret meetings with junior Diet members, which are all quite mysterious. He also invites unusual young bureaucrats he has spotted to these meetings and builds connections with junior Diet members. Being recognized by Mr. Suga here could land you a state minister or parliamentary vice minister appointment.”
Even Goshi Hosono and Akihisa Nagashima, who are nobodies now with the opposition parties’ slump, still often get Suga’s attention and are invited to dine with him. A senior Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan official observes that “he is so good at winning over people. He would often greet Diet members on their return to the Diet after losing in a previous election with: “Congratulations on your political comeback,” and shake hands with them. He would also call them by phone.
A senior administration official also notes that, “While former Chief Cabinet Secretaries Masaharu Gotoda and Hiromu Nonaka [two of the most respected former chief cabinet secretaries] often carried the air that they were the ones controlling the prime minister even if they were not the leader, Mr. Suga has nothing of that. That is also his weakness. Gotoda and Nonaka voiced their opinions on the Self-Defense Forces to the prime minister, but Mr. Suga has no such political ideology.”
However, a former cabinet minister claims that Suga has already surpassed Nonaka. He says: “Mr. Nonaka served only for one year and three months, and Mr. Suga is the one who has made many achievements. Whether he is able to surpass Mr. Gotoda, who is often said to be the ‘number one’ chief cabinet secretary, will depend on what happens next year.”
What this means in concrete terms is how Suga handles the Emperor’s abdication and Abe’s long-cherished dream of constitutional revision.
The above former minister points out: “[A lot depends on] whether the imperial succession goes smoothly and whether he can skillfully unite the LDP, Komeito, and Nippon Ishin [Japan Innovation Party] to achieve constitutional revision. Both are difficult issues that might give rise to upheaval.”
If Suga is able to surpass Gotoda, he could become a strong candidate to succeed Abe. A senior LDP official asserts that “for now, Mr. Suga is the only probable candidate to succeed Mr. Abe.”
Suga used to tell his aides that “the moment you show your ambition, you start to lose political power.” When asked if he would like to become the prime minister in a recent interview, he said: “That is out of the question. I know myself best. I believe that politics only works with a combination of various types of people.”
Giving an outright answer like that is probably meant as a message to Abe to hide his own ambition. Suga’s moves in the last year of the Heisei Era need to be watched closely. (Abridged)