Nikai Toshihiro (age 82), Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), treated Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide (age 72) to some cold watermelon in the afternoon of June 10, saying “I’ll support you while you are away. Please do your best.”
The scene took place in the secretary-general’s room on the fourth floor of LDP headquarters. Suga was to leave for the U.K. on the evening of June 10 to attend the Group of Seven (G7) summit. Suga chose Nikai as the last ruling party officer to meet with before his meeting with G7 leaders.
Nikai said, “You will know whether someone is cheering you on or holds you in contempt when you actually meet the person, not by wasting a million words.”
Nikai’s principle is to have meetings in person instead of communicating by email or phone. Even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Nikai meets Suga at critical stages in politics, at the House of Representatives members’ dormitory in Tokyo’s Akasaka district or LDP headquarters.
Suga said, “It’s a very painful [decision]” to the press corps at the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei] at the start of the extended state of emergency for COVID-19 on May 12. Suga and Nikai had a discussion that same night at a room in the Diet members’ dormitory.
Around this time the Cabinet’s approval rate was plummeting in media opinion polls. Nikai said, “I will continue to support you,” conveying the sentiment in words.
Suga also has no lack of consideration for Nikai. His aides reveal that they “convey the administration’s important issues to Nikai first.” Suga himself contacts Nikai and Komeito representative Yamaguchi Natsuo prior to imposing or lifting the state of emergency.
A member of LDP headquarters staff who serves as the liaison between Suga and Nikai notes that “Suga undoubtedly trusts Nikai. They understand each other even without explicit discussion.”
The House of Representatives election will take place by fall 2021, and the term of the LDP president will also expire at that time. The best scenario for Nikai is that he will be reappointed as secretary-general and Suga continue as LDP president. Nikai’s strength is that he casts a wide net to prepare for possibilities other than the best-case scenario. His flexibility leads to the ability to withstand drastic changes in the political environment.
Former LDP Secretary-General Ishiba Shigeru (age 64) entered the LDP presidential race four times, running against former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and Suga. Ishiba is the enemy for Nikai, who supported Abe and Suga. Nikai nevertheless calls Ishiba a “policy expert,” and Nikai was invited as a guest speaker to an Ishiba faction party.
When LDP Acting Secretary-General Noda Seiko (age 60) showed interest in running for the LDP presidency, Nikai said he would “support her.”
Nikai maintains a close relationship with Koike Yuriko (age 68), who has sparred with Suga and Abe. Nikai has known Koike for twenty-five years, since the days of the former New Frontier Party.
The Tokyo government faces many issues, such as COVID-19, the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. Koike has visited Nikai at LDP headquarters every month since April 2021. It has become customary for Koike to talk to the television cameras about cooperation with the LDP after their meeting.
In the 2017 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, Koike led “Tomin First no Kai,” a local political party whose slogan was “anti-LDP,” to a landslide victory. In the 2017 Lower House election, Koike launched a new party, which posed a threat to the LDP.
Amidst the backlash from the Federation of Tokyo LDP Branches, Nikai announced his support for Koike in the 2017 Tokyo assembly election, creating shockwaves. A top LDP official says “Nikai is the only one in the LDP who can team up with Koike.” Koike, who attracts public attention, may become a candidate for prime minister, depending on the situation.
His casting a wide net makes it difficult to discern Nikai’s true character.
In April 2021, Nikai touched on the possibility of cancelling the Tokyo Olympics but gave no details. People around him started to provide interpretations of his comment, such as “[the comment] makes it easier for Suga to cancel the Olympics,” or “[Nikai] is creating some room for Koike to ask for a cancellation.” Nikai has said many times that he would “advise the prime minister to dissolve the Lower House” if the opposition parties submit a motion of no-confidence.
When the no-confidence motion was submitted on June 15, Suga informed Nikai by phone that he will “solemnly reject [it].” After the phone call, Nikai told his associates with a smile that the Lower House cannot be dissolved if Suga wants to reject [the motion].”
The more Nikai’s associates try to guess his true intent, the more his presence grows, and his attraction as a politician waxes. Nikai says “I don’t cut ties, but I don’t care if people leave me.” Nikai maintains a stance of accepting anything.
The Nikai faction has almost doubled in size since he became its chairperson in 2013, when it had 25 members. Since the number of LDP Diet members has not grown significantly, the growth is due to the addition of people from other factions and those who had been opposition party members. The faction’s income, which was 90 million yen in 2012, had grown three-fold by 2019.
Nikai continues to update his record as the longest-serving LDP secretary general. There is now a certain distance between Nikai and Deputy Prime Minister/Finance Minister Aso Taro as well as Abe, whom Nikai once supported.
On June 17, Nikai visited Abe’s office in the Diet building and expressed appreciation to Abe, who is the top advisor of a parliamentary league chaired by Nikai. Nikai visited Aso’s office immediately afterwards.