Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga acknowledges as he is elected as new head of Japan's ruling party at the Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) leadership election Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, in Tokyo. Image Credit: AP

Yoshihide Suga stifled a smile, stood up from his seat and bowed five times — a formal acknowledgement to a thundering ovation in Japan’s Diet on Wednesday that he had become the nation’s 99th Prime Minister. With that act of public humility, the longest administration in modern Japanese history came to an end.

Suga, long the quiet, effective and functionary second-in-charge now leads Japan as it faces daunting political, economic and societal changes.

Above all, Japanese society covets conventionalism — and in Suga it has achieved that once more.

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With support in the Lower House secured, Suga’s position was confirmed in the Upper House and he then named a cabinet that was simply surprising if only for its lack of surprises.

During a 30-minute news conference following his appointment, Suga remained on script, repeating that he would continue with Abenomics — revitalising Japan’s economy, promoting digitalisation and pledging to tackle burdensome bureaucracy, cut taxes and overcome the malaise brought by the coronavirus pandemic.

If there was a hint of emotion in his speech, it came with a promise to repatriate Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s — also a high priority in the Abe administration.

Simply put, Suga was quite happy to be publicly seen as Abe’s right-hand man — and seems comfortable with that supporting moniker now.

Of 20 ministers in Suga’s new cabinet, there are just five new faces — including Abe’s younger brother as defence minister — while Taro Aso stays on as finance minister, Toshimitsu Motegi remains foreign minister and Yasutoshi Nishimura stays on as minister in charge of economic revitalisation and the government’s coronavirus response.

Perhaps the biggest challenge now facing this 71-year-old whose favourite snack is pancakes and sugar syrup is convincing Japanese voters that he’s the right man for the top job now.

But over the past month, when it became clear that a worsening ulcerative stomach condition would curtail Abe’s near decade-long rule, Japanese are warming to the farmer’s son.

For a man comfortable with the minutiae of ruling and party politics, Suga comes to the helm at a time when Japan is struggling with challenges in a traditional and ageing society, an economy that ticks over and a neighbour in China who has ambitions in the South China Sea.

- Mick O’Reilly

Over the past eight years, Suga remained in the spotlight with twice-daily media briefings and a reputation for managing Japan’s complex bureaucracy.

As the administration’s public face, he had the task of unveiling the name of the new imperial era in 2019, when it was confirmed that Emperor Akihito was standing down. The new era under Emperor Naruhito, suga announced, was to be called Reiwa — meaning “beautiful harmony”.

When he appeared in a festival hosted by online video-sharing giant Niconico, he was greeted by a burst of applause from the mostly young audience, with some even waving and screaming at him as if he were a rock star. Suga said he was flattered by the attention, smiling shyly at the mention of his new nickname, “Reiwa ojisan” — “Uncle Reiwa.”

Path to premiership

Suga was born in 1948 into a family of farmers in Akita Prefecture. Upon graduating from high school, he left for Tokyo in search of a leg up and wound up working for a cardboard factory in the capital’s Itabashi Ward.

He then worked his way up to become a politician in 1987 when he successfully ran as an assemblyman in Yokohama, before debuting as a Lower House lawmaker in 1996. As he has recalled in his past interviews with the media, it wasn’t until 2001 when he fully took notice of Abe, who was then deputy chief Cabinet secretary. The two men immediately hit it off over North Korean issues at a time when Tokyo had a sense of urgency regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests, and as the issue of Japanese nationals abducted to North Korea in the 1970s and 80s became a hot topic in 2002.

He later served as internal affairs minister under Abe’s first, scandal-laden administration, which lasted only a year until 2007. Unfazed by Abe’s poor performance, Suga in 2012 convinced him to run again for the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election — helping catapult him back into power.

Since then, the two have been close allies — making Suga’s rise to the top position a natural progression. For a man comfortable with the minutiae of ruling and party politics, Suga comes to the helm at a time when Japan is struggling with challenges in a traditional and ageing society, an economy that ticks over and a neighbour in China who has ambitions in the South China Sea. Added to that, the existential threat posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear programme and by heightened tensions across the Strait of Taiwan mean Suga will need to raise his profile quickly and effectively on the regional and global stage.

Role model

Suga often cites as his role model samurai warrior Toyotomi Hidenaga, who is widely credited with helping Toyotomi Hideyoshi, his elder brother and a legendary warlord from the 1500s, cement his rule. Similarly, his strength within the LDP stems from the fact that he’s not seen as being any faction’s camp — other than being a loyal and effective second-in-charge to Abe. But will that be enough for the party now that he’s in the top job?

Unlike Abe, who has maintained a career-long ambition to revise the postwar Constitution, Suga appears to have no fixed political vision or ideology — rather instead he’s a politician who is simply interested in wielding power over bureaucrats rather than using the power to achieve a specific cause.

With a general election due in Japan before October next year, Suga now has a year to convince Japan’s voters he fully deserves to be viewed as a man in his own right — not merely Abe’s long-standing right-hand man. Yes, continuity is important — but might that be his eventual undoing?

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf New Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.