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Japan’s Next PM: The Self-Made Son of a Farmer

A man walks by a large screen showing Yoshihide Suga, in Tokyo, Sept. 14, 2020.
A man walks by a large screen showing Yoshihide Suga, in Tokyo, Sept. 14, 2020.

The man who will become Japan’s next prime minister is the son of strawberry farmers, with an unpretentious personality and a penchant for exceeding others’ expectations of him.

Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, on Monday easily won a leadership vote by members of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), all but ensuring he will succeed outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe, Japan’s longest continuously serving prime minister, last month unexpectedly announced he was stepping down because of health problems.

Though he had served as Abe’s lieutenant for the past eight years, the 71-year-old Suga was not initially seen as the top contender to replace him.

Self-made politician

Suga does not come from a political dynasty and does not belong to any party faction, whose bosses play a major role in determining LDP leaders.

In his comments after winning the vote Monday, Suga highlighted his reputation as a self-made politician.

“I was born as the oldest son of a farmer in Akita," Suga said. "Without any knowledge or blood ties, I launched into the world of politics, starting from zero - and have been able to become leader of the LDP, with all its traditions and history."

"I will devote all of myself to work for Japan and its citizens," he added.

After growing up in rural Akita Prefecture, Suga began his ascent in politics as a local assemblyman. He eventually became a close confidante of Abe, who had a first stint as prime minister in 2006-2007. When Abe became prime minister again in 2012, Suga became chief cabinet secretary - a role that combines the duties of government spokesperson and chief of staff.

Though he was frequently quoted in the media, Suga gained a reputation for having a low-key demeanor that generated little attention as a national political figure. One exception was in 2019, when Suga gained notoriety as well as the nickname “Uncle Reiwa,” after unveiling the name of Japan’s new imperial era.

Coalition builder

Though he is seen as a man of few words who rarely veers from the script, Suga has a reputation for excelling at alliance-building, which helps explain why LDP factions quickly coalesced around him following Abe’s resignation announcement.

Suga is “highly regarded for his adept management of Japan’s complex bureaucracies,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In the end, Suga captured about 70 percent of the votes from LDP lawmakers and party representatives Monday, easily defeating former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba and LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida.

Economic continuity

As expected, Suga told reporters Monday he will “inherit and facilitate” many of Abe’s policies.

Suga has already said he would continue Abe’s so-called “Abenomics” strategy, which employed a policy of making money cheap and easily available, fiscal stimulus through government spending, and other structural economic reforms.

Those policies were meant to boost Japan’s stagnant economy, which faces deflation, a rapidly aging population and low birth rates. The country's economic challenges have intensified because of the U.S.-China trade war, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic.

Foreign policy

On foreign policy, Suga may also represent little change from Abe.

He has indicated he will continue pushing for revising Japan’s pacifist constitution, allowing the country to take a bigger role in world affairs.

Suga has also vowed not to back down from China, possibly continuing Abe’s policy of intensifying regional efforts to counter Beijing.

In comments earlier this month, Suga said he would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without preconditions, to “make a breakthrough” on the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s.

What’s next?

Suga will almost certainly become prime minister when parliament votes Wednesday, since the LDP controls the majority of seats in Japan’s lower house.

Currently, Suga is slated to serve out the remainder of Abe’s term through September 2021. But many speculate he will soon call an election, to consolidate his power and extend his term.