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Five ways in which Japan’s new Prime Minister Suga is different from Abe

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On Sept. 16, Yoshihide Suga was elected as Japan’s 99th prime minister, following the country’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Suga was Abe’s right-hand man, serving as the chief cabinet secretary and achieving the longest tenure in Japanese history for this position. Now as prime minister, Suga is widely expected to continue many of Abe’s policies and has publicly vowed to do so. 

True to his words, his cabinet appointments include many holdovers, and his policy pronouncements so far demonstrate few deviations from Abe’s agenda, which Suga helped shape. Suga will first focus on measures to address health and economic setbacks caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and then will pursue other goals such as regulatory reform, digitalization to improve efficiency in government agencies, and the reorganization of small firms and local banks to increase their productivity. 

None of these is a radically new idea and, at least initially, Suga is unlikely to steer Japan away from the direction that Abe set over the past seven years and eight months. However, there are some key differences between the two men that could produce different electoral and policy outcomes for Suga’s administration. 

First, the new prime minister’s personal background is markedly different from Abe’s. While Abe comes from one of Japan’s most prominent political dynasties, Suga is a self-made man with no family members in national politics. Hailing from a farming family in the cold northern prefecture of Akita, he came to Tokyo after high school and supported himself through college, taking on various menial jobs. After a short stint as a salaryman, he became a secretary to a politician for 11 years, and then a city assemblyman for nine years. He then seized an opportunity to become a Diet member in 1996 and soon forged a lasting partnership with Abe, joining his cabinet and becoming an indispensable enforcer for him. 

This relatively humble background nurtured Suga’s pragmatic style of getting things done through careful groundwork and his belief that politicians should be proactive in trying to change the social system to safeguard people’s lives. 

This leads to the second key difference between Suga and Abe: indifference to political ideology. In contrast to Abe’s proclivity for a grand vision for the nation and his nationalistic fervor, Suga has little ideological commitment and is fiercely pragmatic in his approach. Focused on solving problems in the daily lives of regular folk, Suga’s signature policy successes include the lowering of mobile phone bills and reducing the perennially large number of children on the wait list for daycare. If there is anything that he is committed to, it would be to revitalize rural Japan — exemplified in his hometown tax donation program that enabled people to donate their tax to various localities in exchange for gifts from them, and various stimulus packages to boost tourism from abroad to Japan and from cities to rural areas. 

Even if his stance might align with nationalists and conservatives, few would argue that Suga is motivated by any ideological commitment. This bodes well for the Japanese public, most of whom are more interested in modest improvements in their daily lives than in a constitutional revision or a military confrontation with a neighboring country. But Suga also would be wise to promote his vision for Japan, as he started to do with his slogan: “Self-support, mutual support, then public support.” 

Third, and relatedly, Suga long had been a behind-the-scenes politician who never expressed a desire to become prime minister until recently. According to his friends, when he first earned a Diet seat, he said he aspired to rise to the chief cabinet secretary position, a rarity in a profession where most at least harbor a desire to rise to the top. Not prone to flashy demonstration of emotions, Suga is unlikely to go to the New York Stock Exchange and announce, “Buy my Abenomics,” as Abe did in 2013. 

Such understated nature has its pros and cons. The Japanese public tends to appreciate an earnest person who works hard without flamboyance — somewhat akin to the U.S. Midwestern ethos — but politics has become a profession that requires a little showmanship, even in Japan. Suga needs to find a way to make his down-to-earth style appealing to the voting public. In this regard, his unveiling of the name of the new imperial era, “Reiwa,” at a 2019 news conference gave him a significant boost and earned him the nickname “Uncle Reiwa.” He would do well to capitalize on this positive image and establish his brand.

Fourth, Suga is the first Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) prime minister to not have any faction membership since Toshiki Kaifu in 1989 (technically, Junichiro Koizumi left his faction when he became prime minister but was a member until then). Factions may not be as important as they were in the heydays of the 1970s and ’80s, but they still play a role in deciding the next prime minister. Suga’s rise to the position was no exception, and support from the key factions was critical. But it is remarkable that he does not belong to any factions. 

In this regard, he is distinct not just from Abe but most other recent LDP leaders, making him more vulnerable. To be sure, he has a fervent following, particularly among young LDP policymakers, and the strong backing of the faction of Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai gives him some cushion. But if Suga faces a challenging situation from a political scandal or a policy misstep, his lack of membership in any major faction could prove fatal politically.

Suga’s biggest vulnerability, however, will be in foreign affairs — the fifth difference from Abe. Among recent Japanese prime ministers, Abe was exceptional for his strong presence in international scenes. He adroitly managed the U.S.-Japan relationship through two U.S. presidents with contrasting styles, and emerged as a leader of the international liberal order, along with Germany’s Angela Merkel, when President Trump appeared to waiver on American commitment to that order. 

Suga advised Abe on foreign affairs as well, but rarely was on the front stage interacting with world leaders. His first solo visit to Washington last year went well, but as prime minister he will face loftier expectations. He has acknowledged that he will not perform like Abe on the international stage and will find his own voice. Considering how the Japanese public liked Abe for his steady handling of President Trump’s unpredictability, and for Abe’s central role in summit meetings, it will be important for Suga to serve capably in his interaction with other heads of states and establish his presence in international scenes. 

To be sure, American policymakers have little reason for concern about Suga’s foreign policy. He is unlikely to do anything radically different from Abe and, as a pragmatist, he has a deep understanding of the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance. His approach to China will be moderated by his key supporter, Nikai, who is considered the most pro-China member of LDP, and a gratuitously confrontational approach is unlikely even if Suga puts up a hawkish front domestically. His pragmatic style should make him a reasonable counterpart for whoever wins the U.S. presidential election, and will continue to ensure that Japan remains a critical U.S. ally in the Asia-Pacific.

Charles Crabtree is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. Follow him on Twitter @cdcrabtree.

Kiyoteru Tsutsui is Henri H. and Tomoye Takahashi Professor and Senior Fellow in Japanese Studies at the Shorenstein APARC at Stanford University, where he is also director of the Japan Program, a senior fellow of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and a professor of sociology.

Tags Donald Trump Liberal Democratic Party Politics of Japan Shinzo Abe US-Japan relations Yoshihide Suga

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