National / Politics

From cardboard factory to the kantei? Yoshihide Suga gets PR makeover as rumors of PM bid soar

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Unsmiling, tight-lipped and at times appearing heavy-handed, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was never exactly the type of politician the public would take a shine to — let alone swoon over.

But suddenly, he is.

A photo of Suga relishing a snack of pancakes — a favorite of his — recently re-emerged online after his announcement of Japan’s new imperial era name, Reiwa (beautiful harmony), on April 1, prompting many to characterize his sweet tooth as a “cute” side of his persona.

Likewise, when he appeared in a festival hosted by online video-sharing giant Niconico last month, he was greeted by a burst of applause from the mostly young audience, with some even waving and screaming at him as if he were a rock star. Once onstage, Suga, 70, said he was flattered by the attention, smiling shyly at the mention of his new nickname, “Reiwa ojisan (Uncle Reiwa).”

The political profile of Suga, the longest-serving chief Cabinet secretary ever, has soared to new heights, further buoyed by his recent four-day trip to Washington that saw him meet with top U.S. officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

What was touted as Suga’s de facto “diplomatic debut” — an extremely rare undertaking for someone in charge of crisis management at home — as well as his lurch into the spotlight are now stoking speculation: Could he be aspiring to replace Shinzo Abe as the country’s next prime minister?

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga arrives with U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo on May 9 at the State Department in Washington. | AP
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga arrives with U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo on May 9 at the State Department in Washington. | AP

At his daily press briefings Suga himself has categorically denied he harbors any such desire, although others are expectant. Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said in an interview with a magazine last month that Suga is “well qualified” as the next prime minister, given his “outstanding” performance as the top government spokesman over the past six-plus years.

An opinion poll conducted May 10 to 12 by the influential Nikkei business daily also showed Suga suddenly emerging as the public’s fourth favorite pick to be prime minister, with a support rate of 7 percent — a leap from his previous showing of just 2 percent last October.

His allies and political observers say they can’t quite picture Suga going after the prime ministership, describing him as a dedicated Abe booster who willingly effaces himself to support his boss’s policies.

This is not to say, however, that Suga is a pushover. In fact, underlying his relative success as chief Cabinet secretary is his deft control of the nation’s top bureaucrats with the power to demote or sack them, as well as the unflappable manner in which he handles questions from reporters.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo last July | BLOOMBERG
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo last July | BLOOMBERG

The No. 2 guy

Suga was born in 1948 into a family of farmers in Akita Prefecture. Upon graduating from high school, he left for Tokyo in search of a leg up and wound up working for a cardboard factory in the capital’s Itabashi Ward.

He then worked his way up to become a politician in 1987 when he successfully ran as an assemblyman in Yokohama, before debuting as a Lower House lawmaker in 1996. As he has recalled in his past interviews with media, it wasn’t until 2001 when he fully took notice of Abe, who was then deputy chief Cabinet secretary. The two men immediately hit it off over North Korean issues at a time when Tokyo had a sense of urgency regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests, and as the issue of Japanese nationals abducted to North Korea in the 1970s and 80s became a hot topic in 2002.

He later served as internal affairs minister under Abe’s first, scandal-laden administration, which lasted only a year until 2007. Unfazed by Abe’s poor performance, Suga in 2012 convinced him to run again for the LDP presidential election, thus helping catapult him back into power.

Suga “took a liking to Abe’s way of thinking and really pushed him instead of (then-LDP leader Sadakazu) Tanigaki, who was rallying together the LDP” when it was briefly out of power, said political analyst Harumi Arima.

It seems their relationship has remained essentially unchanged since then.

A senior official at the Prime Minister’s Office, for one, said Suga “wholeheartedly and steadfastly carries out what he is told to do by the prime minister.”

Arima noted Suga’s unyielding loyalty.

“Abe has retained Suga for so long because he knows that Suga is not at all the type who would stab his back by seeking to replace him,” Arima said. “If there was any sign of that, Suga would’ve been gone by now.”

A similar view is echoed by Katsuei Hirasawa, a veteran LDP lawmaker who debuted as a Diet member at the same time as Suga in 1996. Having closely observed Suga over the years, Hirasawa says he increasingly sees in him a resemblance to his former boss, the late Chief Cabinet Secretary Masaharu Gotoda, nicknamed the Razor for his shrewdness. Hirasawa is a former secretary for Gotoda.

“Just like Gotoda, Suga doesn’t seem the slightest bit interested in grabbing the top position,” Hirasawa said.

“He knows he’s a No. 2 guy and that his role is to commit himself to supporting (Abe) as his shadow,” the lawmaker said, questioning the view that Suga’s recent forays into diplomacy reflected his desire to lay the groundwork for a bid for the top slot.

In fact, Suga often cites as his role model samurai warrior Toyotomi Hidenaga, who is widely credited with helping Toyotomi Hideyoshi, his elder brother and a legendary warlord from the 1500s, cement his rule.

Suga doesn’t currently belong to any faction within the LDP, highlighting his relatively weak intraparty clout.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga participates in an event hosted by online video-sharing giant Niconico in April in the city of Chiba. | KYODO
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga participates in an event hosted by online video-sharing giant Niconico in April in the city of Chiba. | KYODO

Reining in the bureaucracy

Suga may not ooze charisma, but he is a force to be reckoned with nonetheless.

As internal affairs minister, Suga forged ahead with a raft of initiatives he says were initially opposed by bureaucrats in the ministry, according to his 2012 book. Those included establishing the so-called furusato nōzei (hometown tax) system and ordering public broadcaster NHK to increase content on Pyongyang’s abduction of Japanese citizens in its international programming — an act his allies warned him would be seen as government interference with freedom of the press.

According to the broadcasting law, the internal affairs minister can order NHK to air specific topics in its international broadcasting.

He acknowledges — at times brags — that he can be tough on bureaucrats, having learned from his stint as the internal affairs minister how effectively he can manipulate them by exercising his power to shuffle personnel.

“The power over personnel affairs, if used effectively, can better control an organization and unify it toward a common goal,” Suga wrote in his book. “Bureaucrats pay painstaking attention to personnel changes and astutely surmise their minister’s message conveyed in those changes.”

In the book, Suga recalls how he, as the internal affairs minister, once transferred an official who questioned his plan to shake up NHK’s subscription fee system.

This tactic culminated with the initiative Suga took in establishing the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs in 2014 that served as a secretariat for the prime minister to appoint a significant number of elite bureaucrats at ministries and agencies of the central government.

While this system paved the way for politicians’ stronger leadership, “transfer after transfer of officials who dared to challenge or criticize the Prime Minister’s Office has made bureaucrats operate with sontaku,” said Takeshi Nakajima, a professor of contemporary political philosophy at Tokyo Institute of Technology, using a word that refers to the act of surmising the intentions of one’s boss and acting on them without receiving any explicit instructions.

It is this control of bureaucrats that seems to be at the crux of Suga’s political identity, Nakajima says.

Unlike Abe, who has maintained a career-long ambition to revise the postwar Constitution, Suga “appears to have no fixed political vision or ideology,” he said. But instead, it seems Suga is the type of politician who is simply interested in wielding power over bureaucrats, rather than using the power to achieve a specific cause, he added.

The professor said Suga’s penchant for populist-style policies — such as his push to cut the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line expressway’s toll, slash NHK’s subscription fees and lower mobile phone bills — suggests he is “adept at consolidating power by winning the hearts of the public,” noting his similarity with high-profile politicians such as Ichiro Ozawa and Toru Hashimoto.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announces the name of the new Reiwa Era on April 1 at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo. | SATOKO KAWASAKI
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announces the name of the new Reiwa Era on April 1 at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Suga the ‘iron wall’

Political observers say a key to his longevity as the chief Cabinet secretary partly lies in the tight-lipped manner in which he conducts his twice-a-day press briefings.

They are mostly a scripted event. The restrained manner in which he conducts the briefings — where Suga tends to stick to answers prepared by bureaucrats and gives away little else — has earned him the nickname Teppeki (iron wall).

“The amazing thing about Suga is that he rarely goes off script. … He could probably repeat the same answer 20 times,” Arima says. “Whereas anyone else may have lost their cool or blurted out something by acting like a know-it-all, Suga seldom behaves that way, because he knows he needs to avoid giving reporters any words” that can be used against the government, he says.

Suga’s “iron wall,” however, came under scrutiny earlier this year when criticism arose over what many perceived as his attempts to single out Isoko Mochizuki, a Tokyo Shimbun reporter known for her assertive questioning style, and discourage her from asking questions.

Moreover, when invited to speak at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in summer 2014, Suga “sent us a note asking to see (all) the questions in advance,” said Tokyo-based journalist David McNeill, who chaired the 12-member FCCJ committee that organized Suga’s news conference.

His request was rejected by the FCCJ, McNeill said. But he took it as an indication that Suga was eager to “control press events” by mimicking the conditions of his usual briefings, he said. At the Prime Minister’s Office, officials in charge of media relations customarily ask reporters at the press club what questions they plan to ask before the spokesman’s briefings start.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga addresses the Lower House plenary session as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks on in October 2013. | KYODO
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga addresses the Lower House plenary session as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks on in October 2013. | KYODO

Stoic to his core

As Kazuo Tanoi — a longtime confidant of Suga and an LDP member of the Yokohama City Assembly — jokingly put it, the top government spokesman has sacrificed his private life so much “he might as well be married to the state.”

In one well-known example of this, Suga, who has a wife and three adult sons, hasn’t returned to sleep at his Yokohama home since he was assigned to his post more than six years ago, instead residing in a dormitory for lawmakers in the vicinity of the Prime Minister’s Office.

“It’s almost as if every minute of his life was spent thinking about the nation,” Tanoi says.

Such is his commitment to work that Suga is an incredibly fast eater, apparently wanting to waste as little time as possible, the assemblyman says.

“Whenever I go dining out with him, it’s always someplace where food is delivered quickly, like a ramen or gyūdon (beef-on-rice) restaurant,” Tanoi says. “He hates fancy Japanese-style restaurants where you’d have to wait forever for the whole course to be served.”

Tanoi also recalls marveling at his friend’s stoicism that once involved a younger, plumper Suga scrupulously going on a “curry soup diet” to avoid eating rice. In his past interviews with media, Suga has also said he does situps every morning and night — 100 times each.

Tanoi, too, echoes that Suga doesn’t appear eager to pursue the prime ministership, describing him as devoted “No. 2 material.” But that is not to say he doesn’t envisage a Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga completely.

“I doubt he will ever actively seek the top position himself,” he said.

“But if a national crisis akin to, say, the collapse of Lehman Brothers befell Japan and lawmakers around Suga begged him to step up to succeed Abe, he may be persuaded to do it.”