Yoshihide Suga—Japan’s New Leader

Today Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) elected Yoshihide Suga as party president and presumptive successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who last month announced his resignation due to health concerns. Suga is expected to officially become Japan’s new prime minister on September 16 after a vote in the Diet (parliament), where the LDP’s ruling coalition enjoys a majority. Suga pledged to focus on the coronavirus pandemic and economic reform amid speculation that he could call a snap election this fall to consolidate his power.

Q1: How was Suga elected?

A1: Suga faced two opponents, former foreign minister Fumio Kishida and former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba, in the race to serve out the one year remaining on Abe’s term as party president. The candidates competed for 535 votes, 394 ballots from LDP Diet members and 141 from representatives across Japan’s 47 prefectures. Suga won handily by securing 377 votes compared to 89 for Kishida and 68 for Ishiba. Suga secured endorsements from several party factions based presumably on an assumption that he would further Abe’s policy agenda after serving as his chief cabinet secretary (a combination of chief of staff and government spokesperson) for nearly eight years. Observers will scrutinize Suga’s cabinet picks, expected shortly after the parliamentary vote on September 16, for clues about the extent to which he might favor continuity over policy reform.

Q2: What is Suga’s background?

A2: Unlike Abe, whose grandfather was prime minister and epitomized Japan’s tradition of hereditary politics, Suga is the son of a farmer and built his political career from scratch. Suga served in city government before being elected to the Lower House of the Diet in 1996. He assumed a more public profile after 2012 when Abe tapped him to be chief cabinet secretary, and he wielded considerable power behind the scenes in that capacity as the Abe government centralized decisionmaking in the prime minister’s office and established more control over bureaucrats. Suga also coordinated the legislative agenda with the LDP and junior coalition partner Komeito, whose support was critical to maintaining majority control of the Diet and passing various legislation, including an important package of defense policy reforms in 2015 that allowed Japan to exercise collective self-defense in certain circumstances. Suga has relatively less exposure to diplomacy and foreign policy, though as chief cabinet secretary he has participated in Japan’s National Security Council deliberations and is very familiar with the strategic priorities developed during Abe’s term. Behind the scenes, he maintained discipline in the policymaking process on issues ranging from U.S. bases on Okinawa to diplomatic friction with South Korea. He has won kudos from the bureaucracy and business world for his commitment to studying difficult policy issues and then acting decisively. He has acknowledged that he is not known as a high-profile political figure internationally. The public warmed to Suga last year when he announced the name of the era marking the ascendancy of Japan’s new emperor—“Reiwa”—and he will try to strengthen that connection in his new role as prime minister.

Q3: Has he established policy priorities?

A3: Suga noted today that he will focus on combating the coronavirus and revitalizing economic growth with an emphasis on regulatory reform to promote the digital economy. Suga has a strong track record of pushing through regulatory reform in areas such as tourism, which tripled under the Abe government. He hinted at possibly increasing the consumption tax during the campaign but walked that back, presaging a continued debate about whether the government should prioritize consumption or fiscal consolidation. Suga also expressed support for legislative debates on constitutional reform, noting that some elements of the document are outdated. It is not likely that this will be a high priority compared with other policy areas, though. His foreign policy agenda is expected to align with Abe’s emphasis on strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance, networking with maritime democracies in the Indo-Pacific region, deterring the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and securing the return of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s. Suga has stated that he will continue to draw on Abe’s foreign policy expertise as the next prime minister. There will also be great interest in Suga’s approach to China policy, namely whether he tries to explore additional avenues for diplomatic interaction with Beijing to stabilize bilateral ties while continuing to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities to deter Chinese coercion in the East China Sea. The immediate question will be whether Xi Jinping’s delayed state visit to Japan can occur in the wake of China’s crackdown in Hong Kong. Suga visited Washington last year to develop a network in the United States though he acknowledged that his connections in the diplomatic realm pale in comparison to Abe’s and will consult his predecessor as he begins to engage the international community.

Q4: How long will he remain in power?

A4: Suga technically has a year to solidify his political footing before the LDP holds another presidential election, and elections for the Lower House of the Diet are mandated shortly thereafter. The political debate will now center on whether Suga will serve as a caretaker or can capitalize on his experience to consolidate power and develop a strategic vision for Japan over a longer time horizon. Speaking at CSIS on September 9, Defense Minister Kono Taro said that he expects an October election, which would be the first test of Suga’s longevity as prime minister. Two center-left opposition parties recently joined forces in anticipation of a possible snap election, though their combined support rate still trails far behind the LDP in public opinion polls. At this juncture, the LDP’s sense that Suga can deliver stability and continuity appears accurate. That is just what Japan needs in the face of a pandemic and several other policy challenges requiring steady governance.

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and director of Asian Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Nicholas Szechenyi is deputy director and senior fellow of the Japan Chair at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.