Reformist who breaks territorial obstacles of forms: Yoshihide Suga set to be new Japan Prime Minister

Under Abe’s first administration in 2006, Suga headed the internal affairs ministry, where he introduced a hometown tax programme, offering tax deductions for those who donate money to local municipalities

Japan’s longest-serving Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga is set to be named the country’s prime minister on 16 September, succeeding Shinzo Abe who resigned from the position citing health reasons. Suga will serve for Abe’s remaining tenure until September 2021.

Described as Abe’s right hand man, Suga was born in 1948 to a strawberry farmer and school teacher and worked in the fields as a child. According to a biography by Isao Mori, Suga’s father told him to work on the family strawberry farm, but he decided to move to Tokyo at a young age. He later studied a bachelors degree in law at the Hosei University in 1969. He also worked odd jobs in Tokyo – first with a cardboard company and then driving turret trucks at a fish market.

According to reports, when Suga decided to pursue politics, lacking family connections, he asked the career services center for an introduction to a member of Parliament. In 1975, Suga took a job as secretary to Hikosaburo Okonogi, a member of the House of Representatives from Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city. His duties included buying cigarettes and parking cars.

He also quickly learned how to cater to a constituency. At Suga’s wedding to his wife, Mariko, in 1980, according to Mori’s biography, a supporter of Okonogi said he had bought shoes for Suga because he “quickly wore them down” going door to door to visit voters in the district.

The Sugas have three sons, but in a debate last week, Suga admitted that he had rarely been home as they were growing up.

In 1987, he ran for a seat on the City Council in Yokohama, where he became known as a “shadow” Yokohama mayor. He helped develop transportation links to the port and pushed to reduce waiting lists at city day care centers.

In 1996, Suga leapt to national politics, winning a seat in the lower house of Parliament. Under Abe’s first administration in 2006, Suga headed the internal affairs ministry, where he introduced a hometown tax programme, offering tax deductions for those who donate money to local municipalities. Even after Abe left office following a series of scandals, Suga remained loyal.

Suga has also trumpeted his brainchild, a system that allows citizens to donate money to local governments in exchange for locally sourced gifts, according a report by The New York Times. Many small-town governments, however, have lost money by spending more on gifts like marbled wagyu beef or shipments of fresh lobsters than they raised in donations.

On foreign policy, Suga has worked to fill holes in his portfolio. He visited Washington last year, the first chief Cabinet secretary to make such a trip in three decades.

Eventually, when Abe rose to power in 2012, he selected Suga as the chief cabinet secretary, acting as Abe’s spokesperson, coordinating policies and keeping bureaucrats in line. Suga’s closeness to Abe meant he was seen as someone able to speak frankly to the prime minister. He notably advised him against a controversial 2013 visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, which is viewed by neighbouring countries as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism, AFP reported.

Suga repeatedly has praised Abe’s diplomacy and economic policies when asked about what he would like to accomplish as prime minister. He also has defended scores of favoritism and cronyism scandals, saying that investigations into the cases were properly handled.

Suga, whose portfolio also included a ministerial role as head of Okinawa issues in the Abe-led government, has offended local leaders with his high-handed approach to a disputed relocation of a US Marine air station on the southern island, according to The Associated Press. He also sparked criticism last year over his hostile responses to a female reporter asking tough questions about Abe’s policies and scandals.

Hailing from the Akita prefecture and known as a leader not belonging to a dynasty or a political family, he was named Uncle Reiwa after unveiling the name of the new Japanese era during the transformation from Emperor Akihito to his son Naruhito in 2019. “He was very quiet,” said Hiroshi Kawai, a former high school classmate who still lives in Suga’s hometown of Yuzawa and works as a local tour guide, told Al Jazeera. “He was someone you wouldn’t notice if he was there or not.”

“I will devote all of myself to work for the nation and the people,” he said in his victory speech after the Liberal Democratic Party vote, which virtually guarantees his election in a parliamentary vote because of the majority held by the LDP’s ruling coalition.

Suga will take office in the middle of a pandemic that has devastated Japan’s economy, effectively erasing years of growth under Abe. Japan also is facing deepening pressure from China and North Korea. He is expected to further push for a revision of Japan’s pacifist Constitution and the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea. He has also said he would roughly stick to Abe’s signature economic formula, known as Abenomics, combining easy monetary policy, government spending and structural changes of industries like agriculture.

He has also said he will confront longer-term issues such as Japan’s ageing population and low birth rate.

Suga, a known strong opponent to a bill passed two years ago to sharply increase the number of foreign workers permitted in Japan, has been credited with helping Abe push through contentious security laws that allow Japan’s military to join overseas combat missions alongside allies.

Speaking to the Associated Press, Suga said that he is a reformist and that he has worked to achieve policies by breaking territorial barriers of bureaucracy. He has credited himself for those efforts in achieving a booming foreign tourism industry in Japan, lowering cellphone bills and bolstering agricultural exports. On Monday, he pledged to crack into vested interests and rules hampering reforms.

Suga has said he wants to maintain communication and develop strategic ties with China and South Korea despite rocky relations with them.

News reports also revealed that Suga, a teetotaler with a sweet tooth, starts and ends each day with 100 situps. On his website he says he likes river fishing and karate.

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