Which politician is most often quoted by Japanese media outlets? The answer undoubtedly is the chief Cabinet secretary, who holds two news conferences each weekday.
But fielding questions from reporters is just a small part of the job. What are the official and unofficial duties? What’s the source of the top government spokesman’s power?
Below are some questions and answers about the linchpin of the Cabinet.
What role does the chief Cabinet secretary play?
The holder of that title presides over the Cabinet Secretariat, the staff at the prime minister’s office.
The post basically goes to someone who is close to and can serve as the right-hand man to the prime minister.
The chief Cabinet secretary’s clout has increased greatly since the late 1990s, when late Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto reorganized the ministries and strengthened the power of the prime minister.
Before then, few politicians and only a small number of bureaucrats routinely spent time at the prime minister’s office. Elite bureaucrats at each ministry exerted great influence over government decision-making; the prime minister and chief Cabinet secretary had relatively limited power.
But facing a financial crisis in the 1990s, the government needed to carry out drastic reforms, and purge the ministries of vested interests.
In the process, the power and functions of the prime minister’s office were strengthened, as was that of the chief Cabinet secretary, who took on the role of coordinating the policies of all the ministries and agencies.
The chief Cabinet secretary also came to preside over key advisory panels, administrative organizations and high-ranking officials, including the deputy chief Cabinet secretary for crisis management, the National Security Secretariat, the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, and the Cabinet Affairs Office.
What are the official duties of the chief Cabinet secretary?
The most well-known job is to hold a news conference twice a day and present the official views of the government in response to questions from reporters.
Every weekday morning, assistants to the chief Cabinet secretary check the major newspapers and TV news broadcasts, and prepare official comments on major topics about which reporters might ask questions during news conferences.
The chief Cabinet secretary then faces reporters with a file of official views prepared by the assistants, and offers comments based on that file, with occasional additional commentary if deemed necessary.
The morning news conference usually starts at 9:40 a.m. Tuesday and Friday, and at 11 a.m. on other weekdays. The afternoon news conference usually starts at 4 p.m.
Those news conferences, once open only to reporters from major newspapers and TV stations, can be viewed live over the Internet.
The second major job of the chief Cabinet secretary is to coordinate the policies of ministries and make top-down political decisions when necessary.
When the prime minister engages in diplomacy and crisis management, the chief Cabinet secretary may exert great influence over diplomacy as well, as Yoshihide Suga currently does.
For example, Suga is regarded as a key player in coordinating the conflicting policies and interests of the trade and agriculture ministries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks.
What other roles does the chief Cabinet secretary play?
The chief Cabinet secretary usually also serves as a policy coordinator and communicator between the ruling party and the prime minister.
If the policies of the ruling party and the government conflict, the chief Cabinet secretary often engages in behind-the-scenes talks to bring the opposing views closer together.
The chief Cabinet secretary also has access to and can freely use a special fund at the Cabinet Secretariat that amounts to around ¥1.4 billion every year, and does not have to disclose details of any expenses.
The fund has often invited allegations that it has been used for shady political machinations, including bribing politicians and political commentators.
Who is the current chief Cabinet secretary?
Born in Akita in 1948, Suga started his political career as a secretary to a Lower House member. After serving as a Yokohama Municipal Assembly member, he was elected to the Lower House in 1996.
Suga is a longtime ally of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and was appointed internal affairs minister in 2006 during Abe’s first stint as prime minister.
Even after Abe quit that post in 2007, citing health reasons, Suga maintained close ties with him and apparently earned his trust.
Suga is also one of the key figures who urged Abe to run again for the Liberal Democratic Party presidency in 2012, helping to ensure his comeback as prime minister.
What is Suga’s governing style like?
Suga often wields clout over bureaucrats and keeps them in check on Abe’s behalf.
He routinely intervenes in the administrative process, appointing favored candidates as key ranking bureaucrats.
Suga is believed to have played a major role in the appointments of Haruhiko Kuroda as Bank of Japan governor and Katsuto Momii as NHK president.
Suga also created the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, which serves as the secretariat for the prime minister to select who serves as an elite bureaucrat. There are about 600 such positions across government ministries and agencies, including vice ministers and bureau chiefs.