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Can behind-the-scenes operator Suga excel as Japan’s prime minister?



The choice of Yoshihide Suga as the next leader to steer Japan might seem only natural in a nation where he has virtually morphed into a household name over the past seven-plus years, owing to his constant exposure to the media as the top government spokesman.


But his public persona belies a political career fundamentally molded by his commitment to behind-the-scenes roles.


A backroom lieutenant, skilled crisis management coordinator and bureaucracy manipulator — it is those kinds of positions that have always been at the core of Suga’s standing as a politician. Seldom has he been recognized for leadership abilities.


Little wonder, then, that with the 71-year-old having been elected president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and now all but assured of his place as successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, those abilities are now under heavier scrutiny than ever. The question is simple: Can Suga excel as Japan’s leader?


Adding to speculation over his aptitude as leader is his identity as a nonhereditary politician, which sets him apart from the roster of scions who have helmed the party in recent memory.


Indeed, Suga’s ascent Monday to the LDP presidency marked the first time in nearly three decades that a candidate who doesn’t hail from a political dynasty has clenched the party’s top position.


Between Kiichi Miyazawa, who assumed the role in 1991, and Abe, all LDP presidents had family in politics whose fame and bases of support laid the foundation for their political debut. Of them, nearly all had lawmaker fathers, the exception being former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, whose father was the influential mayor of a town in Ishikawa Prefecture, home to his constituency.


Also at issue is Suga’s seeming indifference to ideology, which critics say has made him appear rather devoid of a grand vision that he wishes to pursue for the nation.


His tendency as chief Cabinet secretary to stubbornly read from a script and simply brush aside reporters’ questions, meanwhile, casts doubt over his skills as a public speaker and his ability to engage off-script with voters, the media and world leaders.


Lone wolf

The son of a strawberry farmer from Akita Prefecture could be considered a maverick, in that he has little leadership experience as a party executive or a faction heavyweight — long considered the unofficial prerequisite for the LDP presidency.


With chief Cabinet secretary being a post focused on working behind the scenes, the closest he has ever come to being a leader was probably during his stint as internal affairs minister, from 2006 to 2007.


In this unorthodox political resume lies both Suga’s weaknesses and his strengths as the party’s new leader.


For one thing, his yearslong aversion to the LDP’s faction system has made him a “loner” surrounded by few reliable lieutenants, said freelance journalist Tetsuo Suzuki, who has closely followed Suga for over a decade and conducted multiple one-on-one interviews with him.

Although in the early years of his career as a Lower House lawmaker — which started in 1996 after nearly a decade as a Yokohama municipal assemblyman — Suga migrated from faction to faction, he dissociated himself from the intraparty tug-of-war in 2009 and has since prided himself on being unaffiliated with any LDP caucus.


“But his distance from factions has long made him operate as a lone wolf in the party, and he doesn’t have many on his side whose brains he can pick,” Suzuki said.


The biggest challenge facing his leadership, therefore, is “the fact that he doesn’t have himself to appoint as the new chief Cabinet secretary — someone who can handle crisis management as expertly as Suga himself did under the Abe administration,” Suzuki said.


“Whether he will be able to assemble a competent ‘Team Suga’ is what will determine the fate of his leadership.”


Suga’s tale of upward mobility and his lack of lineage as a political blue-blood are sometimes described as reminiscent of the late Kakuei Tanaka, the “people’s prime minister” who battled poverty as a child and barely finished education in what today is known as junior high school. Tanaka held office as prime minister from 1972 to 1974.


While Suga himself eagerly touts the fact he has climbed the political ladder from scratch, his upbringing was nowhere near as underprivileged as Tanaka’s: Suga’s father is known to have been a relatively successful farmer who once was an assemblyman in an Akita Prefecture town.


Critics say this hint of social status somewhat mars Suga’s reputation as a rags-to-riches success, although it is true he carved out his electoral constituency in Yokohama independently of his father — without resorting to the kind of handover of filial support on which many hereditary politicians rely.


In another striking difference, few see in Suga any echo of the charismatic Tanaka, whose wealth of knowledge and gumption to pull off bold policies earned him the nickname “computerized bulldozer.”


Populist leader?

But one thing that Suga may have gained from his humble roots is sensitivity to the needs of the general public.


Throughout his career, Suga has gravitated toward what could be considered populist initiatives. In fact, signs have already emerged that as prime minister he won’t hesitate to weaponize populism-driven policies to coalesce the public around his administration.


While on the stump for the LDP election, Suga enthused about his long-term campaign to slash mobile phone bills in Japan, which he has said are among the world’s highest.


This dovetails with other “price-cutting” policies for which he has crusaded in the past, including cutting expressway tolls for the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line that connects Kawasaki and Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture, and reducing unpopular subscription fees for public broadcaster NHK.

“To say he was shallow would be taking it a bit too far, but he is good at coming up with policies he knows will make him popular among the public,” said author Isao Mori, Suga’s biographer.


But this penchant for campaigns meant to please the public seems to have blinded Suga to the need to map out a grand vision for the nation he will be tasked with steering, Mori added.


In fact, Suga’s lack of vision is something he himself has admitted in the past. In interviews with the media, he has repeatedly recalled how, as a junior politician, he was once impressed by Abe’s views on the politically charged issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s — and, ultimately, by the way Abe detailed his conservative ideals for the nation’s future.


“To tell you the truth, I had no such visions in me at the time,” Suga said in a magazine interview in 2014.


This comment suggests Suga is not the type of politician driven fundamentally by ideology, said Takeshi Nakajima, a professor of contemporary political philosophy at Tokyo Institute of Technology who has closely analyzed public remarks and statements made by politicians.


Compared with Abe, who has sought to reshape Japan based on his right-leaning agenda such as revising the postwar, pacifist Constitution, “Suga will likely show less interest in revising the charter or visiting the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine,” which enshrines Class A war criminals as well as Japan’s war dead, Nakajima said.


National identity

It is in this apparent lack of a big picture that biographer Mori senses a potential weakness in Suga’s fledgling leadership.


“There are certain individual policies he emphasizes he wants to implement, such as promoting deregulation and cutting red tape, but I don’t think he has done a good job of explaining why those policies are important to Japan or what they mean to him as a politician,” Mori said.

“These are the kinds of big visions for a nation that he needs to be able to articulate if he really wants to convince voters and his fellow politicians to support him.”


That said, Mori concedes that Suga has dropped some hints of the national identity he envisions for Japan. Nowhere have they manifested themselves more clearly than in his calls during the campaign for a jijo (self-help) society, which the author said likely encapsulates Suga’s belief in neoliberalism — where government intervention is considerably limited, to encourage competition among the private sector and free-market capitalism.


“First and foremost, the onus is on yourself to perform your own duties,” Suga said while on the stump. “If you can’t, then it’s your family or community’s job to support you. If that still doesn’t work out, then the government will take responsibility to protect you.”


Journalist Suzuki, on the other hand, thinks Suga’s identity as a politician boils down to his interest in the improvement of regional Japan.

Many initiatives he spearheaded over the years — including initiating the furusato nōzei (hometown tax donation) system, revising immigration laws to let in more blue-collar foreign workers and promoting the creation of casino resorts — have to do with stimulating economies and combating depopulation in rural areas of Japan, he said.


“But with Suga being a loner and with few brains around him, he still hasn’t been able to flesh out those visions and present them as the basis of his administration,” he said.


Man of few words

As he shifts roles from a behind-the-scenes operator to the public face of the nation, another characteristic of Suga that could attract scrutiny is what some might describe as a lack of eloquence.


During his career as the nation’s longest-serving chief Cabinet secretary, taciturn Suga mostly sulked his way through his twice-daily press briefings, adamantly adhering to boilerplate, scripted answers and rarely displaying any interest in spontaneous exchanges with reporters. His impregnable attitude has garnered him the title “Teppeki,” or the “Iron Wall.”


“The nickname ‘Iron Wall’ may give the impression that his speech is so airtight there is no room for criticism, but in reality, all he does is simply refuse to answer questions,” biographer Mori pointed out, referring to Suga’s tendency to flatly dismiss accusations by reporters as “untrue” without explaining why, or to dodge questions with pet phrases such as “izure ni shitemo (in any case).”


“I’m very doubtful about his ability as a public speaker. … My biggest concern is whether he can go toe-to-toe with world leaders when he has to engage in off-the-cuff, heated discussions with them.”


That Suga is no raconteur, however, isn’t all bad, observed Kazuyoshi Komiya, a management consultant who has tutored many top businesspeople over the years.


Suga’s tight-lipped demeanor, Komiya said, at least indicates that he is not prone to gaffes. He is, in other words, the exact opposite of the likes of former Prime Minister Taro Aso, whose tendency to blurt them out during his tenure from 2008 to 2009 frequently caused a media frenzy and became a liability for his own administration.


“Unlike Aso, a political blue-blood who grew up rich, Suga is familiar with the thinking of the general public, so I don’t think he will let slip Aso-like gaffes that will make him sound out-of-touch with the people and draw their ire,” Komiya said.


“But whether he will come off charming and amusing … I’m not so sure about that.”

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