TOKYO: Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, leaves Sunday (Oct 18) on his first overseas foray since taking over from his former boss Shinzo Abe last month, heading to Vietnam and Indonesia.
The choice to visit Southeast Asia underscores Japan’s efforts to counter Chinese influence and build stronger economic and defence ties in the region, much in line with Abe’s vision.
It also reflects pandemic realities. With the US tied up with domestic politics ahead of the Nov 3 election, Suga was unable to head to Washington straight away for talks with Japan’s most important ally after he rose to power, replacing Abe, who resigned for health reasons.
As he emerges from Abe’s shadow with promises to “work for the people,” Suga is proving in some ways to be even more hard-line. That has raised hackles within Japan and carries the potential to rile neighbours who already were disgruntled by Abe’s nationalist agenda.
Abe had vowed to restore Japan’s waning diplomatic stature and national pride by promoting ultra-nationalistic policies such as traditional family values and amending the post-World War II pacifist constitution to allow a greater overseas military role and capability for Japan.
While Abe travelled abroad relentlessly during his nearly eight years in office, often as Japan’s top salesman, Suga mostly stayed home to manage bureaucrats to push economic, security and other domestic policies.
Suga is expected to sign a bilateral defence equipment and technology transfer agreement with Vietnam as part of Tokyo's efforts to promote exports of Japanese-made military equipment. It's a signal that Suga is certain to follow Abe’s footsteps in diplomacy.
Meanwhile, at home, Suga, best known for his behind-the-scenes work pushing Abe's agenda as chief Cabinet secretary, has deftly used his modest background as the son of a strawberry farmer and a teacher and his low-profile, hardworking style to craft a more populist image than his predecessor.
With much of the world, including Japan, occupied with battling the coronavirus pandemic, Suga is focusing more on delivering results back home.
So far, he appears to be striving to distinguish himself from Abe by pumping out a hodge-podge of consumer-friendly policies meant to showcase his practical and quick work.
He cannot afford to waste time, with national elections expected within months.
"What is always on my mind is to tackle what needs to be accomplished without hesitation and quickly, and start from whatever is possible ... and let the people recognize the change,” Suga told reporters Friday as he marked his first month in office.
Suga has ordered his Cabinet to rush through approvals of several projects such as eliminating the requirement for Japanese-style “hanko” stamps widely used in place of signatures on business and government documents. He is forging ahead with his earlier efforts to lower cellphone rates and promote the use of computers and online government and business.
Tackling Japan's low birthrate and shrinking population head-on, he favours granting insurance coverage for infertility treatments.
“So far, Prime Minister Suga is working on policies that are easy to understand and popular to many people, as his administration apparently aims to maintain high support ratings,” said Ryosuke Nishida, a sociologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “He is boldly tackling reforms one after another, and that’s his strategy to make his government look as if it is achieving results.”
At the same time, Suga's refusal, without explanation, to approve the appointments of six professors out of a slate of 105 to the state-funded Science Council of Japan has drawn accusations that he is trying to muzzle dissent and impinge on academic freedoms.
The flap looks unlikely to balloon into a serious crisis for Suga, who has not given any explanation apart from saying that his decision was legal and that the group of academics that advises and checks government policies should be acceptable to the public.
But it has added to concerns that Suga might be more forthright than Abe in quashing opposition: The council, set up in 1949, has repeatedly opposed military technology research at universities, most recently in 2017. Its objections to government funding for such research is contrary to Abe's efforts to build up Japan’s military capability.
Many Japanese, especially academics, are wary of abuse of power given the country’s history of militarist repression before and during World War II and anti-communist campaigns after the war.
Historian Masayasu Hosaka, writing in the Mainichi newspaper, described it as a “purge.”
The surprise decision sent support ratings for Suga's Cabinet to just above 50 per cent last week from well above 60per cent shortly after he took office.
Adding to unease over possible interference in academic freedom, the education ministry urged public schools to display a black cloth symbolizing mourning along with the national flag and to hold a moment of silence to show respect for the late Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, whose state-funded funeral was held Saturday.
Such moves would come as no surprise under Abe, who as the grandson of wartime leader Nobusuke Kishi and heir to a political dynasty stuck to his ultra-conservative agenda.
But while Suga’s own personal ideology is unknown, he followed Abe's example in making ritual donations of religious ornaments Saturday to the Yasukuni Shrine to pay respect to the war dead. China and South Korea consider the shrine, which also commemorates executed Japanese war criminals, a symbol of Japan's militaristic past.
Suga “seems to be a person with no ideology or political vision,” said Nishida. “His failure to articulate a mid- to long-term goal is worrisome ... It seems everything he does is for electoral gain.”
That could prove risky, some analysts say. Heavyweights within the governing Liberal Democratic Party gave Suga, a self-made politician not affiliated with any of the party factions, their backing when Abe suddenly stepped aside.
Suga could lose their support just as easily, despite his carefully designed Cabinet and party executive lineups, which show he is mindful of his precarious situation, said Koichi Nakano, an international politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo and outspoken critic of Abe.
"Basically, the LDP is a party of hereditary politicians, and that’s Mr. Suga’s weakness," Nakano said.