By Yoshihisa Komori, associate correspondent in Washington, D.C.
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s presidential election campaign has just started in Japan, but U.S. media and academic circles have already started researching on the background and policies of one candidate, Yoshihide Suga, as he is projected by sectors involved in Japanese affairs to be the likely winner of the race.
Suga’s candidacy has been received positively in the U.S. so far. He has a reputation for managing the government efficiently and his succeeding Abe as prime minister signals the continuity of Abe’s policies. On the other hand, there are concerns over his ability to handle diplomatic and security issues, as his potential in these areas has not yet been tested.
Suga has only been thought of as a “capable aid to Prime Minister Abe” in the U.S. up until now, so his emergence as a candidate to lead the U.S. ally has baffled many.
The most detailed information on Suga that has come out over the past week was in a Wall Street Journal article titled “Can-Do Attitude took Yoshihide Suga from Strawberry Fields to Japan’s Pinnacle.”
The authors traveled all the way to Yuzawa in Akita Prefecture, where Suga was born as the son of a strawberry farmer, to hear what his childhood friends had to say about his personal character and history.
The article concluded by saying that Suga, 71, appears to be poised to defeat his political blue-blood rivals not with strong oratory, innovative visions, or ideology, but with his reputation for being able to achieve his goals in a quiet, non-antagonizing, and skillful manner.
Meanwhile, Suga’s lack of experience in the fields of diplomacy and security has inevitably raised some concerns in the U.S. Jeffrey Hornung at RAND Corporation, a well-known research institution, said that Suga appears to be highly capable of managing the government and the party, but nothing is known of his diplomatic ability and security expertise other than the fact that he plans to continue Abe’s policies.
The image of Suga as a strong domestic player whose capability in diplomacy is unknown is prevalent in the U.S. An article by Bloomberg titled “Japan’s ultimate insider faces test navigating U.S.-China feud” also pointed out that while Suga has made successful contributions to domestic issues, much uncertainty remains over his ability to navigate Japan through the intensifying U.S.-China conflict.
A veteran Japan scholar, Professor Gerald Curtis at Columbia University, analyzed somewhat cynically: “The concentration of LDP support for Suga might have resulted from the members’ aversion to appointing former Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba as their leader.” Regarding the prospects for a Suga administration, Curtis said: “In the beginning, the people and media will strongly criticize Suga over the lack of a mandate from local LDP members. However, in a month or so, Suga will have demonstrated his administrative capabilities, and people will say, ‘Well, he lacks charisma, but he’s alright.’ I think Japan in a time of crisis such as this needs an unpretentious, no-nonsense, level-headed leader who is capable of fixing tangled situations.”
Another Japan analyst, Tobias Harris, offered a more pessimistic view, saying, “If Suga assumes the post through the power of the LDP factions, the people of Japan might not warm up to him that easily.”
At any rate, the Suga research being conducted in the U.S. will likely deepen and expand in scope in the coming days.