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Suga can move agenda forward, can he fit initiatives into big picture?

  • September 8, 2020
  • , Asahi digital , 8:00 a.m.
  • JMH Translation

In spite of the cute nickname “Uncle Reiwa,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga often wore a sulky expression and tossed out pat answers at press conferences. Somber and tough-looking Suga has now ascended to the party presidency with the reputation of being highly capable. Noriko Akiyama, senior staff writer and a long-time political watcher at the Asahi Shimbun, sat down for an interview with her colleague Daisuke Kanda on the subject of Suga’s political style. 


Kanda: Politicians often start their political careers at a local government assembly. Suga was a Yokohama city assembly member for two terms, only a short period of time.


Akiyama: Even during Suga’s first term, then-Yokohama mayor Hidenobu Takahide trusted him more than anyone. The mayor was formerly a bureaucrat of the central government, and although his governing style was steady and safe, he was not very good at political maneuvering, which included behind-the-scenes consensus building. Suga took care of that for the mayor and quickly won his trust.


This shows Suga’s attitude toward life in general. When he becomes aware of an issue, he jumps in and works as if there were no tomorrow, eventually creating a situation where nothing moves forward without him. Prior to the Yokohama assembly, Suga worked as secretary to Hikosaburo Okonogi with the same drive to distinguish himself.


Although there were many at the city assembly who were much more experienced than Suga, the mayor sought Suga’s advice when appointing the city’s senior bureaucrats.


At the time I was covering the Yokohama City Hall. Even after Suga left for the National Diet, the fastest and most accurate way to obtain information on Yokohama policies and personnel transfers was to visit Suga at his office in the Diet in Nagata-cho.


Suga consolidated power as Abe’s chief cabinet secretary, handling senior appointments at the government agencies through the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs. His method of increasing influence through personnel appointments has not changed.


Kanda: Suga was the secretary of a Diet member and still good at working behind-the-scenes. Does this distinguish him from rival Diet members from politician families?


Akiyama: Suga is totally different from second-generation politicians. He has always been willing to work exclusively in the background. On the other hand, he may not be very comfortable working in the spotlight. At any rate, his willingness to work in the backroom is making him an endangered species in the LDP and the Diet. There are only a few like him left these days.


Kanda: The job of prime minister may be the most exposed of all. Can he do it?


Akiyama: Well, it will be very interesting to see if and when Suga sheds his old skin.


Kanda: But Suga’s strengths don’t seem to coincide with the characteristics desired in a prime minister


Akiyama: Suga clearly discerns individual items and issues that are tangible and urgent. However, he doesn’t necessarily have a vision, or a big picture, for Japan’s future, such as what kind of country he wants to build or in what direction he wants to lead the nation. Abe had a clear picture concerning Japan’s future, so I would say that Abe and Suga were extremely well matched.


A good example of Suga’s proclivities was his idea to establish a specified skilled worker program in 2018. Suga heard people bemoan the shortage of Japanese fishermen and Japanese nurses for taking care of the elderly. He thought, “We must urgentlhy increase the number of foreign workers.”


So he started working on the creation of the program in February 2018, and the bill passed in December. Mind you, there was no such agenda as increasing foreign workers in Japan in the beginning of 2018. The speed with which he accomplished this was unprecedented, especially considering Abe was reportedly cautious about increasing the number of foreign workers. Suga convinced him, stressing the difficulties faced by Japanese workers in local communities.


However, in working toward the goal, Suga did not consider issues that might arise later, such as how Japanese should co-exist with foreigners or what kind of society should result from the change. He just worked to solve the problem in front of him. Nonetheless, the vitality with which he propels issues toward a goal is exceptional.


Kanda: Isn’t he interested in the resulting societal changes and the sort of life the foreign workers will have after arriving in Japan?


Akiyama: He was perhaps concerned about those matters, but his priority then was to solve the problem by increasing the number of workers, and thinking deeply about future societal changes would have required too much time. Others would have tried to discuss the issue in a government council, etc. Again, though, Suga’s power of overcoming obstacles is exceptional.


Kanda: A long time ago, Kakuei Tanaka was called a “bulldozer mounted with a computer.” it sounds like Suga is a good bulldozer. How about the computer?


Akiyama: I think it’s important that people around him give him good support, because a person has only so much time and talent. Suga knows he is not good at formulating policy. So he is meeting with people and experts non-stop to gather relevant information.


Kanda: By accumulating information, he will be able to create his own standards and values. It sounds like he is doing what a good politician should be doing.


Akiyama: His initiatives are ideal when considered individually. But his different initiatives are not necessarily consistent with each other, and sometimes the resulting picture is not coherent as a whole. (Abridged)


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