Among the few definitive things that can be said about Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, is that he does not wear his heart on his sleeve. As the right-hand man of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, Mr. Suga has fielded questions from the press on an almost-daily basis for years. And yet, despite his public role, he has revealed little about himself other than gnomic nuggets like his penchant for pancakes and fishing. But although his inner world remains enigmatic, his skill at deflection, capacity for hard work and unwavering loyalty towards Mr. Abe have proved enough to propel him to the helm of the nation.
Mr. Suga’s journey to the political summit has been up a very different road to that of his mentor’s. While Mr. Abe’s lineage was so robust as to endow his rise almost with a sense of inevitability (both his maternal grandfather and great uncle were former PMs), the 71-year-old Mr. Suga is a self-made man. The son of a strawberry farmer, he was born in the snow-covered hardscrabble of rural Akita province, in Japan’s north. To put himself through university in Tokyo, he worked a series of odd jobs — including at a cardboard factory and a fish market. His school friends say they would have been hard pressed to imagine his future success. Hiroshi Kawai, a high school classmate told the New York Times: “We have such proverbs as ‘great talents are slow to mature’ and ‘a wise falcon hides its talons.’ Now, I realized that those words were created for Mr. Suga.”
Entry into politics
After graduating, Mr. Suga joined an electrical maintenance company, but soon quit the life of a salaryman to become the secretary to a Parliamentarian. More than a decade on, he won a seat on the port of Yokohama’s city assembly, but it was only in 1996 that he made a breakthrough into national politics, getting elected to the House of Representatives on a Liberal Democratic Party ticket. His most astute move was to hitch his lot to the destined star of the political firmament Shinzo Abe. During both Mr. Abe’s terms as Prime Minister — between July 2006-September 2007, and since December 2012 — Mr. Suga was at his side, manoeuvring behind the scenes, executing policy, and helping to bring unwieldy bureaucrats into line.
He emerged as the yin to his boss’s yang. Where Mr. Abe was charismatic, Mr. Suga was self-effacing, even dour. Mr. Abe operated in the spotlight; Mr. Suga was comfortable in the shadows. Mr. Abe had a clear, (if unachieved) vision for his country. Mr. Suga eschewed grand visions for practical goalslike revamping dam-use regulations so as to prepare better for natural disasters. But what he lacked in oomph, he made up for in steely resolve. His daily regimen for the last eight years is a window into this tenacity. Mr. Suga is known to have woken every morning at 5:00 am to take a 40-minute walk, followed by a 100 sit-ups. He was at the office by 9:00 am and took up two dozen meetings a day, in addition to addressing press conferences. He preferred to eat soba noodles for lunch, which are easily slurped, to cut down on the time spent eating. For a nightcap, (Mr. Suga is a teetotaler), he completed another 100 sit-ups.
His achievements as Mr. Abe’s chief Cabinet Secretary included getting telecommunication companies to drop expensive mobile phone fees and opening the borders to greater numbers of foreign workers. He also helped negotiate an important trade deal with the EU and to keep the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade zone alive despite the abrupt withdrawal of the U.S. under Donald Trump.
But as Prime Minister, Mr. Suga will need to lead rather than implement, his career specialty thus far. He has promised continuity and stability, and most analysts do not expect him to significantly break with Mr. Abe’s policies. But the formidable challenges facing Japan need fresh ideas. Mr. Suga takes over at a time when the administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is widely seen as confused and the Japanese economy is in serious trouble; all this against the backdrop of an ageing demographic and unpredictable geo-strategic environment given an assertive China, bellicose North Korea and unpredictable U.S.
It is unclear whether Mr. Suga will choose to ride out the rest of what would have been Mr. Abe’s term until next year, or go to the polls sooner to win a popular mandate. In the absence of an election, it is unlikely that he will rock the boat with any bold policy departures. What is less predictable is Mr. Suga’s ultimate fate in the history books: will he join the blur of forgettable short-lived Prime Ministers that have been a standard feature of the Japanese political landscape, or will he emerge as a falcon whose talons prove sharp enough to leave their mark?