In April last year, millions of Japanese turned on their television sets to learn the name of the new Imperial era, a momentous announcement that by quirk of tradition falls to the chief cabinet secretary. They watched as a slight, unsmiling figure with a side-parting bowed and marched towards the podium. “The name of the new era is ‘Reiwa’,” Yoshihide Suga declared.
Mr Suga was dubbed “Uncle Reiwa”, and that moment in the spotlight, as the new Emperor Naruhito took over, was expected to be the highlight of his career. Although a central player in the government of prime minister Shinzo Abe — respected and feared — few members of the ruling Liberal Democratic party thought a man so lacking in pedigree and charisma could go further. A kingmaker, they thought, but never the king.
Not for the first time, Mr Suga was underestimated.
In the wake of Mr Abe’s decision to step down for health reasons, the LDP has rapidly coalesced around the chief cabinet secretary as his successor. Although he belongs to no LDP faction himself, four of the five largest — including Mr Abe’s faction — have endorsed Mr Suga, all but guaranteeing the 71-year-old will emerge as Japan’s next prime minister.
Unlike Mr Abe and many of the LDP’s other top politicians, Mr Suga has no family in politics, and built his career from nothing — an achievement that political observers regard with something close to awe.
“We’ve not had a politician like this for some time,” said Yoichi Funabashi, a veteran journalist and chair of the Asia Pacific Initiative, a think-tank. “He’s a formidable political machine, so adept at using the bureaucracy.”
Mr Suga’s unusual path to the top begins with his birth in 1948, the eldest son of a strawberry farmer in rural Akita prefecture, deep in Japan’s “snow country”. As a student, Mr Suga did not stand out, said Toshio Suzuki, who was two years behind him at high school and now the local mayor. Leaving his hometown, Mr Suga moved to Tokyo, where he started work at a cardboard box factory and paid his own way through law school.
After graduating, he became secretary to a Yokohama politician, where his real education began. His boss was minister of transport in the early 1980s, heavily involved in the privatisation of Japan Railways. “I think that’s the basis for Mr Suga’s politics,” said Isao Mori, his biographer. “It’s something like Thatcherism or Reaganism.” Whereas Mr Abe is a conservative, Mr Suga belongs more to the free market wing of the LDP, aiming to shake off the shackles of Japan’s regulatory state.
Mr Suga eventually entered politics himself, becoming a member of Yokohama city assembly in 1987, and then the national Diet in 1996. But the hurdles to reach the top were formidable. Hereditary politicians such as Mr Abe, who took over his father’s constituency, occupy many of the LDP’s safe seats in parliament. By starting young, they also benefit from the informal rule that multiple re-election victories are needed to join the cabinet.
Backing postal privatisation, Mr Suga thrived and became minister for communications during Mr Abe’s brief first term as prime minister from 2006-07. When Mr Abe was forced to quit, he was abandoned by most of his colleagues. Mr Suga stood by him and vowed to make Mr Abe prime minister again. When the two men achieved that goal, Mr Abe appointed his loyalist as chief cabinet secretary in 2012, a powerful position that is halfway between a US press secretary and chief of staff.
The job let the workaholic Mr Suga deploy his political skills to full effect, contributing to the stability of Mr Abe’s government. He will attend a breakfast, lunch and two dinners a day to meet as many people as possible, then work through the weekend. A teetotaller, he admits to a sweet tooth and a love of pancakes, but few in Japan’s government find him cuddly.
“He works through his grip on the bureaucracy and his control of the mass media,” said Mr Mori. “The bureaucrats he likes advance, and the ones he dislikes are discarded.”
As chief cabinet secretary, Mr Suga has given two press conferences a day for the past eight years, ruthlessly ignoring any media that step out of line.
“For him, personnel is policy,” said Mr Funabashi. “He’s not a visionary. He wants to get things done.”
Colleagues describe Mr Suga as quiet, strong-willed and tenacious. “He hates poseurs,” said one LDP politician.
That points to the challenge Mr Suga will confront if, as expected, he becomes prime minister in a fortnight’s time. With such formidable experience, he seldom makes gaffes, but inspiring remarks are equally scarce. Mr Suga has vowed to continue with Mr Abe’s policies and his immediate priority is to tackle Covid-19, but at some point, he will have to sell his own vision to the Japanese public.
That moment may come sooner rather than later. The lower house of Japan’s parliament has one year left to run, so Mr Suga will have to decide when to call a general election. Mr Abe’s departure has led to a surge of affection for the long-serving prime minister, with his approval ratings hitting 71 per cent. “Perhaps the best time is now,” said Mr Funabashi.
If Mr Suga wins an election, then he can build an administration of his own. Uncle Reiwa — the classic backroom politician — will have the chance to show that he belonged out front all along.