Argument

Japan’s New Prime Minister Is a Fixer, Not a Leader

Abe’s right-hand man taking power could mean a return to the days of short-lived premierships.

Incoming Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga poses for a portrait picture in Tokyo on Sept. 14.
Incoming Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga poses for a portrait picture in Tokyo on Sept. 14. Nicolas Datiche-Pool/Getty Images

Japan’s incoming prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, is a master at getting things done. As the long-serving head of the powerful Cabinet Office under his predecessor Shinzo Abe, he has helped to formulate and implement many of the most significant initiatives over the last seven years. At the same time, he is also seen as a policy wonk short on charisma and is best known for the blandness of his daily press briefings. Unless Suga reveals hidden zest, Japan may be fated to return to its cycle of short-lived and unmemorable prime ministers, maneuvered by factions within the Liberal Democratic Party that has ruled Japan for almost all the last 75 years.

Suga was elected party leader on Monday and will be named prime minister this week, replacing Abe who resigned suddenly two weeks ago due to ill health. Even the selection process for Suga implies the lack of enthusiasm. The vote was taken by the lawmakers and officials in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), with a broader vote of party members rejected as having too high a risk of producing an unacceptable outcome. But even individual lawmakers had little say, with the powerful heads of the five major party factions deciding to throw their support behind the ultimate establishment candidate. Suga was handed a one-sided victory with 70 percent of the 534 votes. The public, which had no direct say, was only enthusiastic about Suga in comparison to his lackluster competitors. In a matchup against the other two, Suga had a 50.2 percent support rate in a recent survey, but just two weeks previously, when compared with a broader slate of potential candidates, he polled at just 14 percent.

Suga is an unusual presence among Japan’s political elite. While many senior figures such as Abe are born into powerful political families, Suga is the son of a strawberry farmer who worked his way up in the political world, starting as a lawmaker’s aid. He is also a famous workaholic, starting at 5 a.m. seven days a week and sleeping most of the time in a dormitory near his office.

As the ultimate fixer, Suga has already made clear that his goal is stability, not innovation. “We need to inherit and facilitate policies promoted by Prime Minister Abe in order for us to overcome this crisis and for each and every individual to have a safe and stable life,” Suga said after the vote. “I recognize that I carry that mission.”

The Suga-Abe combination led to real accomplishments, as indicated by the weekend announcement that Japan would be the first to have a broad free-trade agreement with a post-Brexit United Kingdom. The negotiations were carried out in near-record time of just three months. While the main political kudos are expected to go to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the deal represents a solid run for the outgoing Abe administration, and Suga played a major role.

Suga played a key role in Abe’s other trade accomplishments, such as saving the Trans-Pacific Partnership and pushing EU trade talks. Not the least of these was the necessity to first defang Japan’s historically powerful farm lobby. Under the umbrella of Japan Agriculture, the farmers had successfully fought all attempts to lower Japan’s notoriously high tariffs on imported food, such as the 788 percent tariff on rice. To become a free trade champion, Abe and Suga saw that they needed to open up Japan’s lucrative market to more foreign food products. It helped that ruling party no longer relied on rural votes to stay in office, thanks to redistricting that reduced the disproportionate power rural seats used to have and increased support for the party in the big cities.

Suga’s own policy initiatives are expected to be largely on the domestic side. He wants to help engineer a restructuring of the debt-burdened regional bank system and is pushing to lower mobile phone charges. He is also expected to show strong support for the massive monetary easing program by the central bank that has been the hallmark of Abenomics. A record pace of buying not only government debt but also stock funds has put the Bank of Japan’s balance sheet well over the size of Japan’s economy. The much-vaunted central target of 2 percent inflation (originally targeted for 2015 but not yet achieved) will remain in place.

But it is in foreign policy where Suga will face some of his biggest challenges, most notably how to deal with the quickly escalating conflicts with China. Suga speaks little English and has seldom undertaken overseas trips to meet foreign leaders. “There is little to indicate that Suga has any real vision when it comes to Japan’s place in the world,” said James D.J. Brown, an associate professor at Temple University Japan in Tokyo.

The China policy under Abe has been to sit firmly on the fence. Japanese officials like to stress the importance of the U.S.-Japan security alliance and are fond of quoting former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield who called it “the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none.” At the same time, Japan has not forgotten that China remains vital to its economy. This is not a new phenomenon. Japan was among the earliest investors in China, providing $30 billion in official development aid from 1979 with overall investment of $118 billion. From a trade perspective, China has grown to become Japan’s largest trading partner, with two-way flows totaling $294 billion in 2018. Beyond simple bilateral trade, the two countries are closely intertwined in a regional supply chain that also loops in such partners as South Korea and Thailand.

With these twin goals, the Abe government has tried to walk a fine line. On the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talked of “the heroic protest movement” that ended with tanks being sent in by the government. Suga, meanwhile, read out the same statement issued every year that talked of “a clash resulting from the military resorting to the use of force.” Similarly, the Japanese government had taken a low-key approach on the rising international condemnations of actions taken against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in western China. Japan did join the U.N. resolution in July 2019, the only Asian country to do so, but has declined to take part in stronger U.S. actions aimed at individual Chinese officials.

Similarly, Japan declined to sign on to a U.S.-led statement condemning China’s draconian security law for Hong Kong. It then seemingly switched tracks and announced just a few days later that it wanted a coordinated G-7 statement calling on China to maintain the one country, two systems structure agreed with the U.K. in 1997. “It is important to coordinate closely with relevant countries, including in the G-7, that share our basic values,” Suga told reporters at the time.

In the background, Abe has taken a number of actions to increase Japan’s military capabilities, with higher defense spending and a reinterpretation of the rules around its pacifist constitution, measures that are expected to continue under Suga. The government is now considering a proposal that would for the first time allow attacks on missile sites in other countries if they appeared about ready to launch against Japan. The target in this case would be North Korea, but such an approach could apply to China as well—something not lost on Beijing (and Moscow).

This balancing act has failed, however, to appease an increasingly restive faction within the ruling party, which now sees China as having gone too far. They have pushed for a resolution in parliament to officially cancel the Xi trip. In response, a Chinese Embassy official in Tokyo seemed to pull out the wrong boilerplate, saying that the resolution represented “interference in China’s internal affairs.” As elsewhere, China didn’t do itself any favors in the controversy, which blew up publicly after Chinese ships spent a record 111 days in waters the disputed East China Sea islands.

All of this will give more ammunition to the hard-liners within the party. There remains, however a more pragmatic and still-powerful wing that sees China as a necessary evil. In particular, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai has long worked to maintain ties with China, saying that the move to cancel the trip would “bring the efforts of our predecessors to nothing.” The 81-year-old Nikai is a force to be reckoned with, especially since he was the person who maneuvered the party’s factions into supporting Suga, virtually handing him the premiership. “The fact that Nikai was basically the puppet master, I would expect measures to mend relations or at least not exacerbate tensions,” said Corey Wallace, a foreign-policy expert at Japan’s Kanagawa University in Yokohama.

In the end, Suga may not have to deal with the issues for very long. His term as party leader is only for a year to fill out the post left by Abe. By then the factions may have shifted their pieces again, and an entirely new—and equally short-lived—face could replace him.

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based writer who has been following Japan’s economy and financial markets for more than 15 years.

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