SINGAPORE: Yoshihide Suga is officially now Japan’s next prime minister replacing Shinzo Abe, who resigned due to health reasons.
Unlike many of his Cabinet colleagues - some of whom are potential future prime ministerial candidates - who may be scions of former cabinet ministers, prime ministers and parliamentarians, the 71-year-old son of a strawberry farmer has been branded as an “unlikely leader” by the international media.
BREAKING THE ELITE MOULD
Even his former boss, Abe, came from a family with a political legacy. Abe’s father was a former foreign minister and grandfather a former prime minister.
Shinjiro Koizumi, the Environment Minister, is the son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. Taro Kono, the Defence Minister, is the son of former Speaker of the House of Representatives Yohei Kono.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso’s mother is the daughter of iconic post-war former prime minister Yoshida Shigeru.
Aso is also a descendant of one of modern Japan’s founders Okubo Toshimichi, while his wife is the daughter of former prime minister Zenko Suzuki and his sister, Princess Tomohito of Mikasa, is married into the Japanese Imperial family.
All of these individuals were destined for political offices, while Suga, clearly, was an outlier.
In contrast, Suga gave up the family business of farming and became an odd-job labourer, including a cardboard factory worker, security guard, low-paying newsroom assistant and manual work in the now-closed Tsukiji fish market to save money for university studies.
Such humble roots no doubt allow him to empathise with those in the working class in Japan who are affected by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the global economic slowdown arising from the US-China trade tensions.
His profile is an ideal fit for connecting with individuals struggling in trying global economic circumstances, who in the past have felt detached from the policies of Japan’s political elite.
When Suga made up his mind to become a politician in Japan’s highly-competitive liberal democratic political system, the international media reported that he visited a few hundred residences a day and tens of thousands in total in his district in Yokohoma to canvas for votes, quickly wearing out several pairs of shoes in the process.
Suga moved his way up the political hierarchy gradually through sheer hard work and dedication.
The new prime minister is known to have a strict and gruelling regime, starting his day at 5am daily, which goes on to include a disciplined fitness schedule and sometimes packing as many as three dinner business meetings per night.
He is a self-made man, no princeling legacy, no aristocratic air, no political dynasties, just a no-frills affable “uncle” - Japanese youth have labelled him “Uncle Reiwa” affectionately after, in April 2019, he unveiled “Reiwa” as the name for the new Imperial era for Japan coinciding with Emperor Naruhito’s takeover.
His understatedness and inscrutability may give him a broader appeal amongst the Japanese public than Abe who was a lightning rod for attacks by the opposition and the liberal press because of his strong and decisive leadership style.
SUGA THE CONSENSUS BUILDER
Critics nicknamed him an “Abe substitute” as some observers saw him as a seat-warmer for the next prime minister, particularly if the next elections may be held next year.
But, in the context of Japanese socio-political culture, given that Japanese leaders are not expected to be illiberal strongmen or abrasive alpha leaders.
Rather, the ideal Japanese leader is a consensus-builder - aggregating the interests of all stakeholders, mediating between different political factions and interest groups and responding to the socio-political interests of the Japanese mainstream society.
In this sense, Suga is a consensus-builder. His most recent tenure as the Chief Cabinet Secretary – the longest in Japan’s history - gives him a holistic view of Japanese politics, its political elites and machinery.
In fact, he has already obtained crucial consensus from political factions within his party, including the biggest and most powerful 98-member Hosoda faction led by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda and of which Abe is a member.
He also has support from the 54-member Taro Aso faction, which, as the second-largest group, along with the Takeshita faction, within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), provides a basic majority.
Receiving the nod from both factions will also help Suga get the support of big business and agricultural lobby groups they are close to, which could be important to address the pandemic and economic growth.
Some factions in Japan's politics also have clear foreign policy inclinations. While some have a close rapport with the policy networks in Washington, others, like LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai’s faction, have cultivated close working relations with China.
Having such ties would give Suga stronger support in foreign policy matters and greater leverage in steering Japan through tensions between both countries.
Suga has built a reputation as a quiet, results-oriented leader with a low profile, behind-the-scenes negotiating style who gets the job done subtly without much fanfare and self-promotion.
The media has thus aptly nicknamed him a “problem-solver” and “veteran shadow power”.
UNDERSTANDING JAPANESE POLITICS
Only those less-versed in the ways of Japanese politics will consider Suga's profile a weakness.
Cautious of making sharp abrupt changes, Japanese cultural inclinations dislike knee-jerk reactions and prefer incremental changes to adapt to external shocks, which in this case are the pandemic and Sino-US tensions..
Since Suga is well-known as a policy enforcer, some tough critics also view him as an Abe-sycophant. But they may fail to understand Japanese affinity for policy continuity.
Moreover, Abe’s policies, though critiqued in Japan’s pluralistic and competitive liberal democratic system, have put Japan in an advantageous position with manageable infection numbers, comparatively low death rates and a relatively less steep economic decline compared to its G7 peers at the moment.
It is also important to note that the quality of loyalty, known as chusei, is supremely important in Japanese culture.
Yet others who call him a “caretaker” prime minister, who has yet to be tested in a national election, fail to understand that the Japanese political system is underpinned by a highly-effective and prestigious bureaucracy that enjoys wide political legitimacy with the people and keeps things chugging along, regardless of prime ministerial changes.
With a strong bureaucracy behind him, Suga can focus on what he does best - forging social, economic and political consensus among the Japanese people, institutions and organisations, as he mobilises Japanese resources to combat the current ongoing pandemic crisis.
With Suga at its helm, Japan is in good hands to steer through a difficult period of an ongoing pandemic and ongoing economic challenges amid rapidly-worsening US-China trade tensions.
Dr Lim Tai Wei is Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.