With the advent of the administration of new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the power balance within the government is expected to change.
The previous administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was characterized by a concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Office, which took a top-down style of decision-making, and the strong presence of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
But METI's presence is expected to diminish under the Suga administration, with senior officials linked to the ministry having lost their posts in the Prime Minister's Office. The focus now is on which other agency may in turn strengthen its influence.
That said, in a speech delivered to administrative vice ministers on Sept. 18, Suga declared that the top-down style would continue.
"I want you to make proposals and act boldly in accordance with the policy lines of the Cabinet and instructions from the ministers," Suga said in the speech.
Many administrative officials are currently watching to see which agency Suga will rely on most.
Under the Abe administration, influence was exercised by officials from METI given key posts in the Prime Minister's Office.
They included Takaya Imai, who was Abe's secretary for political affairs and his closest aide, Eiichi Hasegawa, who served as Cabinet public relations secretary, and Kozo Saiki, another secretary to Abe.
Imai teamed with Hasegawa and Saiki to implement the Abe administration's economic policies focused on boosting growth, in close cooperation with the ministry.
Its influence spread over various fields.
It was METI rather than the Foreign Ministry that reportedly led Abe to switch alignment in favor of China's Belt and Road infrastructure development initiative, and to deepen economic cooperation with Russia.
As the COVID-19 virus crisis deepened, Abe consulted with Imai when deciding to request nationwide school closures and distribute cloth masks to all households in the nation, without seeking input from Suga, then-chief Cabinet secretary.
Following Abe's resignation, Hasegawa and Saiki left the Prime Minister's Office, while Imai will remain at least for the time being as an adviser.
Shobun Nitta, a member of Suga's private office, became the new prime minister's secretary for political affairs, while Makiko Yamada from the internal affairs ministry has assumed the position of Cabinet public relations secretary.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita, from the National Policy Agency, was reappointed. Also, an official from the health ministry became Suga's secretary for administrative affairs.
The lineup of administrative officials in the Prime Minister's Office indicates that the Suga administration places, at least for now, no disproportionate weight on any specific government agency.
"We were able to reach the Abe side easily, and it was easy to push our opinions, but it no longer works that way," a senior industry ministry official said, already recognizing a decrease in the ministry’s influence.
Among speculation as to which agency will hold sway next, some say it will be the Finance Ministry, while others expect Suga to make decisions without relying heavily on any specific agency.
The relationship between the government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is also expected to change under the new administration.
Unlike Abe, who is from the party's largest faction, Suga does not belong to any faction. His support base within the party is therefore weak.
Suga will be able to maintain his grip as long as public support ratings for his Cabinet stay high. But should public support decrease, the balance of power will tip toward the party.
"Suga is unlikely to enjoy an unrivaled grip on power, and his government will not have the upper hand over the party," a former Cabinet member observed.
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