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Matsuno Hirokazu, a Cabinet head who makes no enemies

  • December 23, 2021
  • , Nikkei , p. 4
  • JMH Translation

Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu speaks to reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office on Dec. 3.

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio (64) did not choose either Hagiuda Koichi (58), recommended by Abe Shinzo (67), or Onodera Itsunori (61), a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) intraparty faction led by Kishida, as his right-hand person. When Kishida launched his government on Oct. 4, Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu (59) held a press conference and was asked why he thought he was appointed to the post. He replied, “I don’t think the prime minister had expectations for my ability when he appointed me to the post.”


Matsuno’s ministerial experience only includes serving as minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology in the Abe government. The posture of Matsuno, who says modestly, “I don’t want to cause problems for the prime minister,” is different from that of Suga Yoshihide (73), who was well known for having a bitter tongue when he was CCS.


Matsuno was born in Kisarazu City, Chiba Prefecture, and set his mind on becoming a movie director. He studied at Waseda University, the alma mater of Imamura Shohei and other prominent movie directors. But the movie industry was in a recession and there were few job offers. So he joined major commodity supplier Lion and worked in its ad division.


Matsuno says: “I don’t like people who have a strong ideology. I’m neither of the right nor the left; I’m a centrist.” His philosophy derives from the rationality he acquired while working as a company employee.


He composed commercials, created catch phrases, and prepared for shoots. He learned economics in the real world through planning products at the head office and negotiating with TV stations.


The commercials he worked on became big hits and he was encouraged to study at a graduate school overseas. But he thought he wanted to have an influence on all aspects of people’s lives instead of making TV commercials and eventually decided to join the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management. In 1995, he responded to a public recruitment of candidates of the LDP Chiba chapter.


Gaining attention as one of “big four”


Matsuno gained the attention of Nagatacho political circles in 2017, 17 years after he was first elected to the Diet. At a meeting, Abe named Matsuno one of the “big four” who would forge the future of the former Hosoda faction.


That created a stir in Nagatacho because Matsuno was treated on par with Shimomura Hakubun (67) and Inada Tomomi (62), who were regarded as close to Abe. Many political circles were puzzled by the mention of Matsuno. They reacted in the same way when he was given the CCS post four years later.


A talent for not putting people on their guard is advantageous for advancing a career in Nagatacho, a cockpit of jealousy. In Nagatacho, 465 Lower House members vie for the premiership. Matsuno was secretly climbing the ladder of success.


What made this possible was his position in the current Abe faction. The faction is divided into the Abe group, which traces back to Kishi Nobusuke, and the Fukuda group, which consists of people who supported Fukuda Takeo. Former faction leader Mori Yoshiro (84), who was solicitous of faction members, controlled both groups.


Matsuno, who has ties with Mori, is not directly affiliated with the Abe group. Matsuno’s reputation as a “balancer” who does not make enemies earned him the post of director general to serve as a coordinator for the faction in 2019. For Abe, who was eyeing to return to the faction, Matsuno’s existence could not be ignored. 


Just around the same time, Kishida also paid attention to Matsuno. The late Mochizuki Yoshio, who served as director general of the Kishida faction and for more than 20 years devoted himself to making Kishida prime minister, introduced Matsuno to Kishida.


Mochizuki, who was driven into opposition when the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan took power, established the “Soyokaze no kai” study group with Matsuno and others.


In 2017, Kishida assumed the post of Policy Research Council Chairperson and appointed Matsuno acting chairperson. This brought Kishida, Matsuno, and other members of the Abe faction to one another to the point that they even drank together. 


Quickly climbing the ladder of success


In the LDP presidential election held in September 2021, Matsuno backed Kishida, not Takaichi Sanae (60). Abe told members of his faction to support Takaichi. But many experienced lawmakers supported Kishida. Abe then called for Hagiuda’s appointment as chief cabinet secretary, but Kishida chose Matsuno.


Matsuno, who rose through the ranks, now has the role of heading the Cabinet.


He holds press conferences twice a day. “How do you read this geographical name?” He often asks the administration team no more than the pronunciations of Chinese characters in the documents prepared for press conferences.


Just as he did in Nagatocho, he fundamentally keeps his distance from the people in the Kasumigaseki bureaucratic district. Matsuno says, “Our job is to create an environment friendly to all ministries.”


Matsuno displayed a rare expression of anger in dealing with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.


At a taskforce meeting held on Dec. 1, Matsuno reprimanded an official of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism with an angry look and said, “You must report accurately because [the ministry’s decision] will affect many Japanese nationals returning to the country.”


At the end of November, the ministry called on airlines to halt accepting all new reservations for Japan-bound flights. This led to a situation in which Japanese nationals could not return home before Matsuno grasped the situation.


When Abe held the premiership, he described CCS Suga as “Benkei,” a medieval figure know for protecting his master, Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Suga took the brunt of press conferences on the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, which is said to be “close to being a personal issue of Abe’s.”


Attention is focused on how Matsuno will act as chief cabinet secretary. There is no one but Matsuno in Nagatacho who is trusted by both Kishida and Abe.

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