Abe’s Enforcer: Suga Yoshihide’s Stabilizing Influence on the Cabinet

Makihara Izuru [Profile]

[2014.09.25] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 |

Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide has played a key role in the second Abe Shinzō administration, picking the right senior bureaucrats to support the administration’s policies, keeping cabinet members in line, and preventing gaffes from escalating into PR fiascos. As a self-made man—quite rare in national politics today—Suga has managed to work his way up, but challenges remain.

In December 2012, Abe Shinzō became prime minister for the second time following the Liberal Democratic Party’s landslide victory in the House of Representatives election. The LDP made major gains in the 2013 House of Councillors election as well, as the new government applied Abenomics to tackle deflation. The two victories gave the ruling coalition a majority in both houses, providing Abe with what appeared to be a stable political foundation and a firm grip on power. However, the enactment of the Act on Protection of Specified Secrets and a cabinet decision to revise the interpretation of the Constitution to expand Japan’s right of self-defense have raised public concerns about the prime minister’s intentions. While the cabinet’s popularity remains high, the passage of each major bill has eaten into Abe’s approval ratings.

Even so, his support rate has yet to fall below 40%, as of July 2014. This is in stark contrast to Abe’s first term, when mounting public dissatisfaction led to the collapse of his government after only one year. The current administration’s resilience can be put down to such factors as strong cabinet unity, lack of major policy failures, and overall consistency. And the man largely responsible for bringing these about has been Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide.

The Rising Importance of the Chief Cabinet Secretary

Until World War II, the position corresponding to today’s chief cabinet secretary was a bureaucratic role concerned with overseeing the work of the cabinet, rather than ministers. In the immediate postwar era too, it remained typically a job for lower-ranking politicians, but the appointment of senior statesman Hori Shigeru in the Satō Eisaku cabinet (1964–72) marked the start of a gradual shift to tapping influential figures for the post. Gotōda Masaharu, chief cabinet secretary under Nakasone Yasuhiro (1982–87), was a classic example of the new breed of heavyweights. Then in 2001, government reform vastly expanded the powers and staff of the Cabinet Secretariat, turning it into the administration’s policymaking hub and buttressing the role of the chief cabinet secretary.

The LDP no longer dominates Japanese politics like it did in the past, having been driven from power between 2009 and 2012 and now needing to coordinate its policies with coalition partner New Kōmeitō. Rather than continuing the work of the previous cabinet, therefore, the current administration has sought to overturn the system put in place by its Democratic Party of Japan predecessors and to establish its own style. Accordingly, the chief cabinet secretary’s role has gone beyond merely coordinating policy and maintaining the status quo as the prime minister’s trusted aide; Suga has had to reject the legacy of the previous cabinet and restore the good points of earlier administrations.

Three Issues for Suga

Suga faced three major issues when the current Abe government was launched. The first was the need to overcome the negative image of Abe’s wretched first term in office (2006–07). Voters chose the LDP in the 2012 general election only because they were fed up with the chaotic government of the DPJ, not because they had high hopes for the new administration; many, no doubt, expected to see a repeat of the same immature leadership and errors of 2006 and 2007.

The second issue was the need to balance competing interests within the LDP, advancing policymaking with due deference to such party bodies as the Policy Affairs Research Council and the Executive Council. Although these organs have become less powerful, they still frequently raise objections to the administration’s policies. Suga has also had to acknowledge traditional personnel practices, which meant doling out cabinet or party posts to lawmakers who have “come of age”—that is, lower house members who have been elected at least five times and upper house members elected at least three times.

The third issue was the lack of time in preparing a party platform; Abe was selected party president shortly before the 2012 general election, so the LDP’s election pledges had to be written quickly, rather than being fine tuned over the three years the party spent in the opposition. With such a hastily prepared platform, maintaining cabinet unity would be a challenge. This was, after all, the first time that the LDP was returning from the opposition since its 1994 coalition with the Japan Socialist Party and New Party Sakigake replaced the coalition led by Hata Tsutomu of the Japan Renewal Party. At that time, though, JSP leader Murayama Tomiichi became prime minister, so the LDP was not responsible for organizing the new cabinet. In that sense, 2012 was the first time ever that the LDP was required to form a new cabinet after retaking power.

A Self-Made Man

Since becoming chief cabinet secretary, Suga has been an important stabilizing force in the administration—in contrast to Prime Minister Abe’s clearly visible emotional ups and downs. Born in Akita Prefecture, Suga moved to Tokyo after graduating from high school, attending evening classes to complete an undergraduate degree at Hōsei University. With no family ties to politics, he began his career as a Yokohama City Council member before winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1996; Suga is the kind of self-made man rarely found among the leaders of today’s LDP. In the first Abe administration, he took on the powerful role of minister for internal affairs and communications. This yearlong experience in the cabinet and his mental toughness were the chief qualifications he brought to his current position.

Perhaps because he has needed to work his way up, Suga has often shifted his political loyalties. In the 1998 LDP presidential election, he voted against his own faction boss, Obuchi Keizō, to support Kajiyama Seiroku, and in 2000 he joined a rebellion instigated by LDP Diet member Katō Kōichi and absented himself from a vote of no confidence brought against Prime Minister Mori Yoshirō. In the 2006 leadership race, he joined a committee backing Abe Shinzō’s candidacy and came to be seen as a close Abe adviser.

But when Abe resigned in 2007, Suga moved to take the side of new Prime Minister Aso Tarō, and in the 2009 LDP presidential race, he endorsed and gave strong support to Kōno Tarō. Before backing Abe again in 2012, Suga has refused to become tied down to a single faction or leader. It is perhaps this quality that allows him to become a galvanizing force for change when the situation requires.

Picking the Right Person

Suga has shown great interest in personnel decisions. Prime Minister Aso’s plan to abolish the National Personnel Authority as part of civil service reforms during his premiership (2008–09) met with open opposition from Tani Masahito, the NPA president. When reform efforts stalled, Suga lent his support to the reform minister, shouting in a speech, “Tani has got to go!” His interest in civil service reform and strong support for axing Tani laid the foundations for the politician that Suga has later become.

Suga does not claim expert knowledge of any one particular field. The policies he advocates on his website are simply a list of LDP policies and cannot be said to represent his own political thinking. Suga’s strengths instead lie in his ability to become an agent for change and push forth structural reform and to get the right people into the right positions.

This was the first thing Suga did upon being appointed chief cabinet secretary in the second Abe cabinet. He forced Bank of Japan Governor Shirakawa Masaaki to resign and backed international finance expert and Asian Development Bank President Kuroda Haruhiko as a replacement. When Saitō Jirō—who became president and CEO of Japan Post Holdings when the DPJ was in power—chose fellow Finance Ministry alumnus Saka Atsuo as his successor, Suga fiercely opposed the decision and quickly replaced Saka. He also deviated from the custom of promoting the deputy to the post of director general of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, instead appointing Komatsu Ichirō, then ambassador to France, as part of preparations to revise the constitutional interpretation of Japan’s right of self-defense.

Harmonizing with Ministry Practices

The first Abe cabinet collapsed because unqualified candidates were appointed as key cabinet ministers in an overzealous attempt to push through the administration’s policies. In comparison, the appointments made under Suga have been more reasonable, even if they have not exactly been conventional. In some ways, the choices have been quite suitable.

Initially, Komatsu and the senior staff at the Cabinet Legislation Bureau were at odds, with Komatsu open to constitutional reinterpretation and the organization strongly opposing any changes. However, according to media reports, Komatsu worked hard to find a compromise, securing the changes the government sought without repudiating the organization’s traditional practices.

Such a pragmatic approach can also be seen with civil service reform. In April 2014, the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs was established; initially, the bureau was envisioned as seizing away much of the powers from the National Personnel Authority so that appointments to bureaucratic posts could be made politically, rather than by the NPA. The final draft bill that was eventually passed, though, gave the NPA considerable say. Suga was less interested in getting into a dispute with the bureaucracy than with making sure the prime minister’s office could intervene when necessary. One such instance was the cabinet’s appointment of Muraki Atsuko as administrative vice-minister of health, labor, and welfare in summer 2013, which attracted wide media attention. The only move that sparked any debate the following year, though, was the selection of Tanaka Kazuho, head of the Finance Ministry’s Tax Bureau and a former private secretary to Prime Minister Abe, as director general of the ministry’s Budget Bureau. Most other appointments were in line with the thinking of the various ministries. Rather than pushing impossible candidates from the first, Suga has been more selective in exerting his influence.

Keeping Cabinet Members in Line

Suga’s sway also extends to politicians. As Abe’s first term was characterized by numerous gaffes by cabinet ministers, Suga has responded quickly whenever such faux pas occur. When the US government expressed “disappointment” over Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013, Abe aide Etō Seiichi hit back, saying, “We were the ones disappointed” by the US reaction. Suga’s high-level crisis management skills were displayed when he severely reprimanded Etō for the remark.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga gives a press conference on the January 2013 Algerian hostage crisis in front of a flag of mourning. (© Jiji)

The first major test for the current administration was the Algerian hostage crisis in January 2013. In a May 31, 2014, interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun, Suga recounted that the prime minister convened a meeting of all cabinet ministers, issuing instructions for updates on the crisis to be forwarded to Suga so that informed judgments could be made by the prime minister. Regarding the plan to send government aircraft to repatriate the Japanese survivors and dead, there was considerable opposition from the bureaucracy. “After the relevant cabinet ministers reached agreement, I gave the order to dispatch the planes,” Suga said. “The cabinet was unified, so the bureaucrats accepted the decision.” Through this crisis, Suga was able to build a system for controlling information and to reinforce solidarity in what had been an insufficiently unified cabinet; he also succeeded in reinforcing the ascendancy of politicians over the bureaucrats.

Through personnel appointments and the use of reprimands, Suga has been able to maintain firm authority over cabinet ministers, government officials, and other related bodies. Probably no other person or organization in the party or bureaucracy today can keep the cabinet in line as he has done. Accordingly, information increasingly flows to Suga, putting him in the role of chief coordinator. The fact that he does not have an area of policy specialization has kept the door open to information flows of all kinds. Information is flowing out as well, as records of cabinet meetings are made public, and there is increasing disclosure of other information related to policy meetings.

Suga writes a blog where he provides explanations of government aims at important junctures. Without committing to a specific policy agenda, he is able to absorb information from all quarters, exerts control through personnel appointments, and ultimately makes balanced decisions. He has been a crucial factor in the smooth functioning of the cabinet to date.

Potential Obstacles Ahead

Although Suga’s coordinating skills have provided stability up until now, there are three potential sources of discord.

The first is Prime Minister Abe himself, who, as a politician, is a polar opposite of Suga. Abe is firmly committed to a particular policy agenda and has strong personal opinions, which often halts the flow of information. Consequently, he has had a tendency to go beyond the tightly controlled framework Suga has put in place for the cabinet, one example being his visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013. The second is the cabinet reshuffle of autumn 2014. Newly appointed ministers, particularly senior legislators, could become a destabilizing influence if they refuse to listen to Suga. Finally, there is the question of how long Suga himself can withstand the heavy burden of his position, although his record suggests he has all the toughness required.

If these potential problems can be averted, then Suga’s coordination skills will likely give the Abe government the stability it needs to push forward with its policies for the foreseeable future.

(Written in Japanese on July 22, 2014. Banner photo: Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga (center) sits in the prime minister’s seat for a cabinet meeting during Abe’s absence on August 1, 2014. © Jiji)

  • [2014.09.25]

Professor at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, University of Tokyo. Specializes in public administration systems. Graduated in law from the University of Tokyo in 1990. Has worked as a professor at the School of Law, Tōhoku University. His works include Seiken kōtai o koete: Seiji kaikaku no 20-nen (Beyond Change of Government: 20 Years of Political Reform).

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