Even before Suga Yoshihide became prime minister, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) members said to one other that “the Suga administration will not have a Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga.” They thought that no one would be able to perform the work Suga did when Abe Shinzo was prime minister to manage the administration’s internal affairs. Kato Katsunobu, the present chief cabinet secretary, constantly faces such criticism.
It was Suga who chose Kato. Suga met Kato in a Tokyo hotel on Sept. 15, 2020, the day after Suga won the LDP presidential election. Suga said to Kato that he “would like Kato to be chief cabinet secretary.” Kato replied, “I will do my best.”
Suga highly esteems Kato’s administrative capabilities. Suga has told those around him that Kato is “very solid.” Kato’s words or decisions have rarely become an issue. Kato would be an appropriate choice for someone to manage the administration, since he has rarely been at the forefront of a political decision-making process.
As a former finance ministry bureaucrat, Kato is knowledgeable on law, budgeting, and policy. During the Abe administration, Suga was chief cabinet secretary and Kato was the deputy chief cabinet secretary under Suga. Suga appointed Kato as chief cabinet secretary after having seen Kato’s work.
Critics have said that the Suga administration “lacks a coordinator” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, because there have been occasions in which the government and ruling parties at the national and local levels were not in alignment.
In January 2021, Kato advised Suga in his office at the Kantei, “I think it would be better to stop all [entries].” Amid the growing threat of the U.K. (alpha) variant of the coronavirus, Kato proposed that Japan ban all foreign nationals from newly entering Japan in principle.
At the time, people were casting doubt on the administration’s emphasis on resumption of economic activity. Kato had been feeling in his daily briefings that popular opinion was critical [of the administration]. Suga accepted Kato’s proposal and reinforced controls on entering and leaving Japan.
The chief cabinet secretary can enter the prime minister’s office unofficially. Since the end of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic became severe, Kato’s unofficial talks with Suga have increased. Those around Suga say that there are days when Kato talks with Suga “more than ten times.” Kato reportedly tells Suga of “any issues that arise whenever possible.”
Kato also receives complaints from the ruling parties.
Moriyama Hiroshi and Hayashi Motoo, the LDP’s Diet Affairs Committee Chair and Acting Secretary-General, respectively, visited the Kantei at noon on July 9 and asked Kato to be careful because “the words of Cabinet members are very influential.”
It was the day after Minister in charge of Economic Revitalization Nishimura Yasutoshi announced that the government will approach financial institutions to request restaurants to stop serving alcohol.
Kato, Moriyama, and Hayashi have early morning meetings weekly. Moriyama and Hayashi made this request in public partly because they wanted to show that the ruling parties’ actions changed the policy. Kato served to connect the relevant persons.
On this occasion, Kato visited Suga’s office to say that “the party made a request so I am withdrawing the plan.” Suga immediately approved. Kato called Nishimura to say that he was withdrawing Nishimura’s plan, and did so in the afternoon press briefing.
Kato cultivated his relationship with the ruling parties when he was deputy chief cabinet secretary. One deputy chief cabinet secretary is selected from the Upper and one from the Lower House to serve as coordinators between the government and ruling parties. Kato was mainly in charge of the Lower House, but also made the rounds of the Upper House upon request of then-Prime Minister Abe.
To predict Kato’s future, one must go back to his words from three years ago. When Kato became the LDP General Council Chair in fall of 2018, he said he would “like to move forward by always aiming high.”
Kato has Abe’s support. Abe mentioned Kato as a “post Suga” candidate in a magazine published in May 2021.
Kato Mutsuki, Kato’s father-in-law, was a close aide to Abe’s father Shintaro, and Kato’s and Abe’s families have a close relationship. Abe backed Kato’s appointment to major positions, such as deputy chief cabinet secretary, health minister, and LDP general council chair.
Abe describes Kato as the “rare politician who does his job without advertising the fact.” This quality might not be enough for Kato to be prime minister. The prime minister is now the “party’s representative in the election” because the electoral system has instituted single-seat constituencies.
At the end of 2020, Kato mentioned the kanji for “prevent” as the character that most represents 2020, because he was on the defensive due to COVID-19 countermeasures. It was an appropriate choice for a solid practical administrator. The question is whether he can step out of his comfort zone. (Abridged)