One evening last month during a news conference at the Prime Minister’s Office, Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman, closed his eyes tight, clasped his hands on his thighs, tilted his head forward and barely moved — looking as if he was falling asleep.

Roughly 15 meters to the right of the chief Cabinet secretary, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was fielding questions from journalists about the coronavirus and constitutional revision. In contrast to the animated prime minister, who was gesturing and visibly displaying a range of emotions, Suga hardly flinched, even when a reporter mentioned his name among potential successors to Abe as the country’s next leader.

The stark contrast seen on the night of June 18 was a perfect visual representation of the rumors echoing in Japan’s halls of power that the tight-knit bond between Abe and Suga was unraveling.

As one of the critical pillars supporting the second Abe administration since it came to power in late 2012, Suga has been among its most staunch defenders. Long seen as one of Abe’s chief lieutenants, his image was seared into the popular consciousness last year when he unveiled the name of Japan’s new imperial era, acquiring the nickname “Uncle Reiwa.”

Since then, however, his standing inside the administration has begun to erode. During the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, Suga, known for his adept crisis management, was essentially sidelined, with Abe instead shifting his reliance more toward his advisers.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga leaves the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo after a news conference on reports of a North Korean missile launch in May 2017. | REUTERS
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga leaves the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo after a news conference on reports of a North Korean missile launch in May 2017. | REUTERS

Despite assurances from Abe that he is “of a single mind” with Suga, discord between the two could further rattle the administration as it seeks ways to boost sagging approval ratings.

“Suga has become less involved in policy, especially in the recent coronavirus measures,” said Isao Mori, a journalist and the author of a book about the chief Cabinet secretary. “But it’s very complicated. The Prime Minister’s Office led by Abe isn’t rock-solid enough to let Suga go. Since Suga has a firm grip on crisis management and (bureaucrat personnel at) Kasumigaseki, it’s not as simple as just cutting him off.”

Taming the bureaucracy to transform political ambitions into policy has been one of Suga’s signature skills since before he became chief Cabinet secretary. Defying bureaucrats bound by precedents and regulations, he has taken the lead in dramatically relaxing Japan’s visa regulations to boost tourism, lowering mobile phone bills and realizing the furusato nōzei (hometown tax donation) program, which allows tax reductions for those making a donation to their local municipality, since his time as internal affairs minister during the first Abe Cabinet in 2006 and 2007.

As the top government spokesman and Abe’s right-hand man since late 2012, Suga appears in front of the camera twice a day every weekday to offer the central government’s views on the topics of the day and fend off questions from the press. As the longest-serving chief Cabinet secretary, he has been at the forefront of shielding the administration from seemingly relentless criticism over scandals or contentious legislation, often deploying his sullen, tight-lipped demeanor.

During the Kake Gakuen and Moritomo Gakuen scandals — which raised suspicions of favoritism in the government’s decision-making processes over school operators with ties to the prime minister and his wife — Suga exhibited no signs of his confidence in the government’s position wavering.

By further tightening his grip on the bureaucracy, he allegedly created an environment in which bureaucrats would feel invisible pressure not to defy the administration — and even conform to its wishes without being explicitly told, out of fear they might be demoted or sacked if they disobeyed.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga unveils a placard with the kanji for 'Reiwa,' the name of the new imperial era, at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo on April 1 last year. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga unveils a placard with the kanji for “Reiwa,” the name of the new imperial era, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo on April 1 last year. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

When Reiwa was chosen as the new era’s name, Suga carried out the symbolic role of formally conveying it to the public. With the help of social media, which did not exist when the previous era name, Heisei, was unveiled, his face became forever associated with the new name.

Riding a wave of popularity linked with the unveiling in May last year, he suddenly found himself in contention for the premiership, coming in fourth place in a public poll to be the next prime minister. Suga at the time brushed off speculation that he had any desire for the top slot.

This momentum, however, would soon give Abe and his close aides cause for concern, Mori said.

Suga stepping into the limelight meant whatever scenario Abe was envisioning for his future — whether seeking to run for a fourth term or paving the way for his favorite LDP policy research council chief, Fumio Kishida, as successor — might be disrupted. Such a move, even from a close ally, would be disconcerting to the prime minister.

Most of Abe’s close aides are career bureaucrats — a sharp contrast to Suga, a career politician who has risen to the highest levels of government after starting out as a secretary to politicians and a Yokohama city assemblyman. He was elected to the Lower House for the first time in 1996.

“Abe’s extremely close inner circle, including (special adviser to the prime minister Takaya) Imai, are wary of Suga, and are watching out in the event he tries to replace them,” Mori said.

The tailwinds for Suga suddenly shifted to headwinds last fall, when, shortly after a Cabinet reshuffle, a weekly tabloid magazine exposed alleged election law violations by two ministers with close ties to him: Isshu Sugawara of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and the Justice Ministry’s Katsuyuki Kawai.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga before Suga answers questions during a Lower House Budget Committee session at the Diet in Tokyo in February 2014. | REUTERS
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga before Suga answers questions during a Lower House Budget Committee session at the Diet in Tokyo in February 2014. | REUTERS

The administration’s decision to appoint them to the Cabinet was taken as a calculated maneuver by Suga to consolidate his power and tighten levers on the bureaucrats in those ministries. For the prime minister’s aides — particularly Imai, a career METI bureaucrat — even the slightest hint of Suga’s power expanding was seen as a threat.

Both ministers immediately stepped down after the allegations were published, with Sugawara admitting wrongdoing and Kawai being subsequently arrested with his lawmaker wife.

As close aides to Suga, the scandals were widely seen as an unmistakable double-punch to his influence.

Another factor unnerving Abe’s cadre of close aides, according to Mori, was Shinjiro Koizumi’s surprise August news conference to announce his marriage to TV personality Christel Takigawa at the Prime Minister’s Office. The rising Liberal Democratic Party blue-blood, whose constituency is also in Kanagawa Prefecture, had first visited Suga at the Prime Minister’s Office to deliver the news.

Suga suggested Koizumi visit Abe to break the news. For the prime minister’s close aides, the spur-of-the-moment idea came across as Suga seemingly not knowing his place in the administration, Mori explained. The visit was also understood by political observers to be part of Suga’s strategy to finagle Koizumi into the Cabinet during the September reshuffle.

Amid these concerns, the coronavirus pandemic made its way to Japan’s shores. But Suga’s presence in the initial efforts to deal with the deadly outbreak were barely noticeable.

The series of stumbles was sufficient to shake trust in him and prompt Abe’s close aides to sweep in and gain more control over policy making. It is even said that one of those aides suggested distributing face masks as a way of making up for a severe shortage of the products at stores nationwide in early April.

“What appears on the surface isn’t strife between Abe and Suga. It’s between bureaucrats at the Prime Minister’s Office and Suga,” Mori said, adding that this meant the pair’s relationship could be repairable to some degree.

In February, the ineffective and slow quarantine procedures on the Diamond Princess cruise ship and low COVID-19 testing numbers frustrated the public. That anger was largely directed at health minister Katsunobu Kato, who became defensive at times during Diet deliberations. Abe then tapped Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of economic revitalization, to lead the government’s coronavirus response.

The fiascoes in the early stages of the outbreak hurt Suga’s credibility as an essential crisis response manager. Exploiting his predicament, the bureaucrats at the Prime Minister’s Office seized power from Suga and navigated initiatives such as the heavily criticized nationwide closure of schools, the distribution of free cloth masks derided as “Abenomasks,” a play on his Abenomics fiscal policy distribution, and a widely lampooned video of Abe encouraging people to stay at home.

In response, Suga had no choice but to defend the administration, even though it was widely believed that he was either out of the loop or was overridden despite his objections in the final decision-making processes for many of these initiatives.

With Suga struggling to regain his clout and Abe’s aides reeling from the backlash against their policies, the image of strong leadership from the Prime Minister’s Office began to crumble.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga speaks at a news conference after a Cabinet reshuffling at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo in September last year. | REUTERS
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga speaks at a news conference after a Cabinet reshuffling at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo in September last year. | REUTERS

The crisis of confidence triggered a rapid fall in the administration’s approval rating. One poll by public broadcaster NHK last month showed the disapproval rating for the Abe Cabinet at 49 percent, while his support rate had slipped for four consecutive months to a meager 36 percent. Of those who voiced their disapproval, 44 percent said they did not have faith in Abe.

Suga himself has attempted to project an image of protecting the administration with his crisis management skills and being adept at dealing with the media by letting journalists sympathetic to him write stories with a positive spin, Mori said.

Aides, however, appear to think otherwise, he added.

Observing Suga’s performances, they have routinely dismissed his crisis management abilities, concluding that these displays have been mere performance art and claiming that he only scapegoated career bureaucrats to deflect criticism hurled at the administration, Mori said.

“Abe’s close aides are dissatisfied that the administration is associated with the perception that it’s supported by Suga even though they believe his role has not been that significant,” he said.

Abe and Suga have denied speculation that they are at odds with one another, at least publicly. During an Upper House budget committee debate on June 11, Suga highlighted that the two remained on the same wavelength by sharing an anecdote that he had first mentioned the nationwide school closure idea to Abe.

At the same meeting, the prime minister reciprocated the feelings.

“Since the beginning of the Abe administration, I’ve been of a single mind with the chief Cabinet secretary. … We’re working together,” Abe said.

Asked at a news conference the same day about his increasingly less visible presence and what it means for his future, Suga said that was “up to everyone to decide.”

In the meantime, he added, “I’m going to do what I’m supposed to do.”

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