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Japan’s newly appointed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has never been known as a man with charisma.

So when the reticent, often expressionless legislator emerged as front-runner in the race to succeed former leader Shinzo Abe, speculation emerged that he might make up for his lack of charm by tapping a crowd-pleaser for one of the most pivotal roles of his new administration: chief Cabinet secretary, which doubles as the government’s top spokesman.

Instead, Suga has entrusted the portfolio to someone similar to himself — Katsunobu Kato, a former health minister whom it would be hard to describe as colorful, outspoken or telegenic.

But Kato’s modesty may have been exactly what Suga, who himself served for Abe as chief Cabinet secretary for more than seven years, wanted to see in his successor.

Observers say the 71-year-old Suga, whose zen-like stoicism — bordering on workaholism — has led to him being respected as an overachiever but feared as a micromanager, has likely chosen someone he is confident won’t step on his toes or act independently of his orders.

Therein lies perhaps the characteristic of the Suga-Kato relationship that contrasts most sharply with the previous Abe-Suga pairing.

As chief Cabinet secretary, Suga was a force to be reckoned with in backroom politics, browbeating the nation’s bureaucracy into obedience and spearheading key government policies on behalf of Abe, who is said to have been content to delegate a great deal of responsibility to Suga.

As prime minister, however, Suga is unlikely to grant Kato the same level of autonomy, keeping him on a short leash and expecting him to report back as meticulously as possible, observers say.

Bureaucratic background

It won’t be Kato’s first time working directly beneath Suga.

Kato served as deputy chief Cabinet secretary under Suga from 2012 to 2015, the first three years of the Abe administration. Looking back on those days, Kato, 64, has hinted at how tight-knit his communication with Suga was back then — and probably will be going forward.

New Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato announces new Cabinet members at a news conference in Tokyo on Wednesday. | REUTERS
New Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato announces new Cabinet members at a news conference in Tokyo on Wednesday. | REUTERS

“When I was serving for then-chief Cabinet secretary Suga, I was meeting him almost every day,” Kato told a media briefing a day after his inauguration.

“The important thing is for us to thoroughly wrap our heads around what’s on the mind of our new prime minister and take action accordingly. To do so, I hope to communicate with him closely,” he added.

After graduating from the elite University of Tokyo, Kato started his career as a Finance Ministry bureaucrat in 1979 — a background some believe will make it difficult for him to act as aggressively toward bureaucrats as Suga did.

After two unsuccessful election bids, Kato debuted as a Lower House lawmaker in 2003. But it wasn’t until after Abe swept back into power, in December 2012, that Kato’s political profile soared.

Under nearly eight years of Abe’s stewardship, Kato was assigned to multiple high-profile posts both in the government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, including the roles of health minister, head of the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs and general council chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

During his rise up the political ladder, Kato carved out a reputation for deft coordination skills and the composed manner in which he took in his stride grillings by opposition lawmakers and reporters — although he did sometime come under fire for dodging questions.

As health minister, he was at the forefront of Japan’s effort to combat the novel coronavirus outbreak, while reportedly paying visits to the Meiji Shrine every weekend to pray for the plague’s disappearance.

‘Not a show-off’

Unlike the likes of Taro Kono — a tech-savvy, outspoken former defense minister with nearly two million followers on Twitter and a flair for headline-making quips — Kato isn’t so telegenic.

While Kono was among those initially floated as candidates as the next chief Cabinet secretary, it was Kato’s self-effacing ways that eventually prevailed, observers say.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (front right) and Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato (second row left) pose for a photo with other members of the Cabinet at the Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday. | KYODO
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (front right) and Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato (second row left) pose for a photo with other members of the Cabinet at the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday. | KYODO

“The thing that probably appealed to Suga the most is that Kato is the kind of person who never makes decisions on his own,” says Katsuyuki Yakushiji, a former Asahi Shimbun political editor who is now a political science professor at Toyo University. “Perhaps because he is a former bureaucrat, it is in his nature to report to his boss and seek instructions. He is reliable, perhaps, but far from being a self-starter.”

Suga’s appreciation of Kato’s seeming lack of initiative makes sense given how domineering Suga was as chief Cabinet secretary, Yakushiji notes.

“Suga is famous for wanting to be in control of everything. He is the kind of person who would go ballistic whenever he found something on the news he wasn’t aware of. So it’s easy to imagine Suga having been loath to assign the post of chief Cabinet secretary to someone who tends to act on his own, like Kono,” Yakushiji observes.

Kono was instead appointed as administrative reform minister. True to his reputation, Kono had no sooner assumed the post than he made headlines by blasting the long-held government practice of having newly installed ministers speak to the media in rotation — which kept him waiting until past midnight to start his turn — as a strong example of the kind of red tape he has been tasked with eradicating.

Similar views are echoed by Yu Uchiyama, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo.

“Had Kono been appointed as chief Cabinet secretary, he might have spun out of control. It makes sense that Suga chose someone he felt he could control,” he says.

“Kato is not a show-off, knows about policies and is good at handling working-level issues.”

Future prime minister?

Such is the responsibility of chief Cabinet secretary that it is often regarded as the most important Cabinet post. There is much more to the portfolio than its responsibility as the top government spokesman. Part of its significance lies in the sheer influence the person in the position wields over almost all key government policies.

The job is also incredibly versatile, handling everything from coordinating policies that span various ministries to mediating between the prime minister and the ruling party, and from managing crises to exercising accountability for government scandals.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato (left) bows as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (front) leaves a conference room at his office in Tokyo after a news conference Wednesday. | KYODO
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato (left) bows as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (front) leaves a conference room at his office in Tokyo after a news conference Wednesday.| KYODO

It is perhaps little surprise, then, that the position has served as a springboard for those hoping to become prime ministers in modern Japanese politics. Suga’s rise to the nation’s highest office has made him the latest in a long list of politicians who became prime minister after their tenure as the top spokesman, including Abe, Yasuo Fukuda, Keizo Obuchi, Kiichi Miyazawa and Noboru Takeshita.

That raises the question: Could the latest personnel assignment signal that Kato may run in the future as a candidate for prime minister?

Toyo University professor Yakushiji says he is skeptical. While those appointed as chief Cabinet secretary normally hone their skills and amass influence during their stint, Suga’s hunger for control bodes ill for the prospect of Kato’s independence, pointing to his role being vastly different from that of his predecessors, he notes.

“I would say the chief Cabinet secretary usually reports about 20 percent of matters they’re in charge of to the prime minister. But with Suga being the way he is, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kato has to report 80 percent of what he oversees to Suga,” says Yakushiji.

“So the new chief Cabinet secretary is going to be a little different from what we’re used to. … I bet the thought of nurturing Kato as successor is nowhere in the mind of Suga, who is only interested in his docility.”

On Abe’s coattails?

Kato’s malleability, as a former bureaucrat, may not have been the only reason Suga tapped him for the role.

Some say they see in Kato a shadow of Abe’s influence, given Kato’s reputation as an Abe aide. The extent to which Kato was entrusted with a string of high-profile portfolios over the past eight years is a likely indication of the significant trust Abe placed in him, but their relationship actually dates back much further, originating from the camaraderie fostered between Abe’s father, Shintaro, and Kato’s father-in-law, Mutsuki.

(From left) Katsunobu Kato, then-head of the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, Tomomi Inada, then-state minister in charge of civil servant system reform, Shinzo Abe, then-prime minister and Yoshihide Suga, then-chief Cabinet secretary, pose for a photo in Tokyo in May 2014 when the bureau was launched. | KYODO
(From left) Katsunobu Kato, then-head of the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, Tomomi Inada, then-state minister in charge of civil servant system reform, Shinzo Abe, then-prime minister and Yoshihide Suga, then-chief Cabinet secretary, pose for a photo in Tokyo in May 2014 when the bureau was launched. | KYODO

As a youth, Kato married a daughter of Mutsuki Kato, the former agricultural minister for whom he served as a secretary. He was adopted into her family to inherit the surname Kato, forfeiting his own — Murosaki — as a result. Mutsuki, meanwhile, was a stalwart aide to Abe’s father, former foreign minister Shintaro, building what are known to be close ties between the two families.

It is unclear whether this family history, as well as Kato’s roles in the Abe administration and the LDP over the past eight years, factored in Suga’s decision to tap him as his right-hand man.

But at the very least, it strengthens the impression of “continuity from the Abe government,” says Uchiyama at the University of Tokyo.

“I don’t know how much clout Abe wields over (the personnel choices for) the Suga Cabinet now, but one thing that’s certain is that Suga won’t be able to pull free of Abe’s influence until he convincingly wins a snap election and the LDP leadership election slated for next year,” Uchiyama suggests.

“Until then, it will be difficult for Suga to wipe off the Abe color from his Cabinet.”

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