Slow Steps Away from Abe: Suga Yoshihide Moves Toward a Lasting AdministrationPolitics
Suga’s Aims in Carrying the Abe Banner Forward
Since taking office as prime minister, Suga Yoshihide has trotted out two key policies: lowering mobile phone fees and providing financial support to cover fertility treatments. These are hardly the sort of measures we might expect in a nation beset by massive tides of global change and socioeconomic disparities at home, but the Japanese people, perhaps tired from the length of time spent under the macho, chest-beating administration of Abe Shinzō, seem to be welcoming them. In this way, Suga appears to be playing the “continuation of the Abe regime” card as cover while he moves to carve out space for his own political kingdom.
Suga started out as a dark horse candidate in the race to replace Abe as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, and thereby as prime minister. But he engineered an electrifying victory after allying himself with Nikai Toshihiro, the party’s powerful secretary-general. His premiership is therefore the product of a strategic tie-up between two potential rivals, politicians who had both served as senior advisors to Prime Minister Abe.
In promising to carry forward the policy approaches of his predecessor, Suga likely has two primary aims. The first of these is to calm down the jittery markets. These have become increasingly strained as a result of the Bank of Japan’s lengthy application of monetary easing of “a different dimension,” and if the replacement of Prime Minister Abe is taken as a sign that the Abenomics course is in for a correction, it could trigger unpredictable market confusion. Abenomics has been like a drug to the Japanese economy; it will not be so easy to go cold turkey.
The second of Suga’s aims is to bolster his alliances with powerful forces in the LDP. The influential factions led by former Secretary-General Hosoda Hiroyuki and Deputy Prime Minister Asō Tarō were quite comfortable within the party’s power structure with Abe alone at its top, but this is no guarantee that they will automatically go along with Suga. This meant he had to guarantee a continuation of the former regime. Abe, for his part, out of his main desire to prevent Ishiba Shigeru from taking the top spot, willingly endorsed Suga as his successor.
A Hit with the Ladies?
As chief cabinet secretary, Suga played a central role during the almost eight years of the Abe administration. At the same time, his behavior can come across as almost loathsome at times, in a manner inappropriate to a top politician. This has been noticed even overseas. The German news website T-Online, for example, reported on him this way: “Suga, with his somewhat lazy look, has the image of a dry, old-fashioned politician.”
Domestically, though, the image has been more positive. Immediately after its launch on September 16, the new Suga cabinet won approval ratings in the 64%–74% range in public opinion polls. This ranks him third in terms of popularity for a new administration, behind only those of Koizumi Jun’ichirō in 2001 and Hatoyama Yukio in 2009. One aspect of this popularity worth noting is that the supporting genders have switched position: While the Abe administration consistently enjoyed higher positive ratings from men than women, in Suga’s case, women respondents expressed higher levels of support than men.
Among the factors making Suga attractive to female voters may have been his life story, with its humble beginnings in a lonely Akita Prefecture village. Added to this were the policies he set forth—lower mobile phone fees and expansion of health insurance programs to cover fertility treatments—that appealed to them.
The upshot of all this is that we may expect Suga’s policy stance, which currently claims to be a continuation of the Abe years, to gradually water down the political symbolism of his predecessor as he charts his own course.
Control of the Asō Faction the End Goal?
Having felt reason to be confident in striking out on his own from early on in the LDP presidential contest, Suga began laying out his strategy with the formation of his first cabinet. Much has been made of the continuity to be seen, with Asō Tarō remaining in place as deputy prime minister and minister of finance and Motegi Toshimitsu as minister for foreign affairs, as well as Akaba Kazuyoshi—the cabinet member from junior coalition partner Kōmeitō—as minister of land, infrastructure, and transport. But in fact just 8 out of 20 cabinet members remained from Abe’s final cabinet. The other 12, the majority of the membership, represent a break from the Abe past.
Suga’s strategy is somewhat evident in the three members of his cabinet who also served under Abe, but have been given new portfolios. These are Kōno Tarō, who has gone from defense minister to minister in charge of administrative reform; Takeda Ryōta, formerly in charge of defense preparedness and now minister of internal affairs and communications; and Katō Katsunobu, who has gone from being minister of health, labor, and welfare to the chief cabinet secretary’s post.
Kōno, while being a member of the Asō faction in the LDP, is also a representative of Kanagawa Prefecture, like Suga, which places him firmly within the new prime minister’s sphere of influence. Indeed, it was thanks largely to Suga’s support that Kōno—who has tended to be treated as an oddball within the party ranks—made his way into the upper echelons of the Abe administration in the first place. And now Kōno has been tapped to head a pet program of Suga’s: doing away with bureaucratic silos and mindless adherence to precedent in carrying out government administration.
Suga moved quickly to establish a “red tape hotline” to field complaints from the public about needless layers of bureaucracy. When Hatoyama Yukio was prime minister in 2009–10, his cabinet launched a somewhat similar website to accept reports from whistleblowers in the central government, but Suga’s initiative has a more rigorously defined goal in mind: to blow through administrative barriers separating departments of the bureaucracy in order to undermine individual fiefdoms there and bring the entire structure under the firmer control of the Kantei, the prime minister’s office.
Kōno has displayed an unpredictable side in his actions—verbally abusing South Korean Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo in July 2019, while he was foreign minister, and more recently, in the midst of the race for the LDP presidency, brashly telling members of a US think tank that Japan would hold a general election before the American presidential election took place. If, however, he racks up some meaningful accomplishments as administrative reform minister, he could end up a leading member of the LDP’s Asō faction, which is currently without a star politician capable of running for the party presidency. This is Suga’s likely aim for Kōno: to forge him into a powerful party figure that he can control.
The Backroom Deals Behind Key Posts
Internal Affairs Minister Takeda Ryōta, who began his political career as a secretary to Kamei Shizuka, hails from the Nikai faction. His predecessor in the ministerial post, Takaichi Sanae, saw her relationship with Suga (who wielded considerable influence over her ministry) sour in connection with the aftermath of Japan Post’s improper sales of life insurance products, which came to light in 2019. To advance his signature policy of lowering mobile phone fees, Suga has chosen to remove Takaichi, who was close to Abe Shinzō, and replace her with Takeda. This is a move sure to please the faction leader Nikai; at the same time, Suga has elevated a figure who has never been known for backing down from clashes with Asō in Fukuoka, where both of their constituencies are.
Names mooted as possible chief cabinet secretaries included Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Kajiyama Hiroshi, a figure with strong ties to Suga, and Moriyama Hiroshi, chair of the LDP’s Diet Affairs Committee. The chief cabinet secretary is a vitally important post, perhaps the closest to the prime minister himself, and it was somewhat surprising that Suga tapped Katō, whose relationship with him was not as tight as those he enjoys with these other possible candidates.
Katō is a member of the Takeshita faction in the party, but in fact could almost be called a part of the extended Abe family. His father, Katō Mutsuki, was a close confidant of Abe Shintarō, Shinzō’s father, and Mutsuki’s wife Mutsuko and Yōko, Shinzō’s mother, enjoy an almost sisterly close friendship. Because of this background, some say that Abe Shinzō has dispatched Katō Katsunobu into the Kantei to serve as a watchdog over Suga’s doings; it may even be that Suga agreed to take him on board as a way to guarantee that he would stick to the Abe course as prime minister. In any case, though, his selection as chief cabinet secretary smells strongly of the backroom dealing that accompanies a change of government.
The Strength of Being Free from Ideology
The personnel decisions Suga has made in staffing the Kantei paint a still clearer picture of the sort of administration he is aiming for.
Imai Takaya, who had a free hand in the Abe government as special advisor and secretary to the prime minister, has been named as special advisor to the cabinet. Effectively a demotion removing him from the direct line to the premier, this is meant to push Imai toward the door. Hasegawa Eiichi, like Imai a former METI official who served under Abe as cabinet public affairs secretary, and Saiki Kōzō, known as the secretary who proposed the distribution of reusable cloth “Abenomasks” to every household in the nation, have also left. The era when METI could dispatch people to the Cabinet Secretariat and the Kantei, thereby gaining some measure of control over the entire central bureaucracy, seems to have ended with Abe’s administration.
Some figures remaining in positions of power, meanwhile, are Sugita Kazuhiro, now serving as deputy chief cabinet secretary, and Izumi Hiroto, a former Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism official tapped as a special advisor to the prime minister. Both of these men were Kantei officials reporting to Suga when he was chief cabinet secretary; now that Imai is on the way out, their grip on authority is expected to grow still stronger. Kitamura Shigeru, who was a deputy chief cabinet secretary under Abe, is still in the cabinet as secretary general of the National Security Secretariat, but it remains to be seen how close his relationship with Suga will be.
The number of secretaries to the prime minister has been increased by one to six in total. In an unusual move, four of Suga’s secretaries have accompanied him from their previous posts as secretaries to him as chief cabinet secretary. The only secretary remaining from the Abe team is a single member with a Ministry of Defense background; the one new addition is Kanuma Hitoshi, a former Suga secretary who finished his stint serving the chief cabinet secretary and went back to his post at the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare before being called up once again. His inclusion hints at increased involvement for Prime Minister Suga in the MHLW field, due to his policy focuses on insurance coverage for fertility treatments and measures to combat COVID-19.
Suga has no nationalistic ideology of the sort that drove Abe. His attachment to power is much stronger than the average politician’s, but his lack of a fixed vision for the Japanese state he hopes to create may actually end up a strength for him, freeing him up to choose different policies based on their relative merits at any given time. We can therefore expect him to continue slowly diverging from the Abe line even as he continues to promise a continuation of his predecessor’s policies.
At present, Prime Minister Suga is sending out hints that he will wait until the new year before dissolving the House of Representatives and calling a general election. But we cannot discount the possibility that he will listen to voices within the LDP calling for an earlier dissolution so that the contest takes place before a potential resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the cold winter months; there is still a chance for an election within the year. Whenever it takes place, the ruling coalition has little to fear from the opposition, whose support ratings are in the cellar. Suga is certain to be hard at work already designing the form of a long-lasting administration to be kicked off in earnest by this electoral victory.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Suga Yoshihide thanks lawmakers after being elected party president by the Joint Plenary Meeting of LDP Diet members in Tokyo on September 14, 2020. © Jiji.)