Professional bureaucrat Yoshihide Suga, second-in-command to outgoing leader Shinzo Abe, became Japan's prime minister on Wednesday when appointed in a special session of Japan's parliament. After donning formal garb and being sworn in by the emperor, Suga takes official power.
Today's events have followed Monday's leadership vote inside his dominant Liberal Democratic Party. There is no serious opposition to the conservative LDP at the moment in Japan, so the leader they choose becomes leader of the nation. He won 68% of the 462 votes cast today in parliament.
Suga, who had been Abe's chief cabinet secretary, is widely described as low on charisma but high on political prowess. Over almost a quarter-century in the Japanese government, he has skillfully promoted and favored allies, and exiled opponents, in his unlikely rise to the top.
The dirtiest piece of dirt dug up on him as he ascends to power is that he gets up at 5 a.m. to complete 100 sit-ups every day, before reading all the news and starting meetings at 6:30 a.m. Then more meetings. He loves meetings.
Will Suga last longer than a year in power? Prior to Abe's eight-year reign, Japan saw a shuffle of largely anonymous leaders, with six prime ministers in the six years before Abe took power in December 2012.
Abe, Japan's longest-serving leader, is from political royalty, as are the vast majority of Japanese prime ministers. Suga is highly unusual in being a self-made man who has dragged himself hand by hand up the leadership ladder of the world's third-largest economy.
Suga, 71, was born to a strawberry farmer father and schoolteacher mother in rural, poor Akita Prefecture in Japan's north. He worked as a security guard to put himself through college, then got a job at an electrical-maintenance company. At the age of 26, he decided to devote himself to politics, working for a national politician and then winning a seat on the city assembly in Yokohama, near Tokyo. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1996 and served eight straight terms.
A teetotaler who likes candy, he also ends every day with 100 sit-ups. He says on his Web site profile that he likes fishing, hiking and reading history, and enjoyed karate when he was a student. He lists his blood type as O; many Japanese people believe your type shapes your personality. O denotes leadership ability and optimism, though its downside is a tendency to be insensitive, and late.
Abe, Japan's longest-serving prime minister, announced his decision to step down on August 28, blaming a resurgence in the ulcerative colitis bowel disease that has bothered him since he was 15. It was also the reason he gave in 2007 in stepping down from his first, year-long stint as Japan's leader.
Suga has taken the helm somewhat by default. He belongs to no particular political faction within the LDP, where party bosses control those at the top with back-room deals.
Suga defeated former foreign minister Fumio Kishida and Abe's long-time rival Shigeru Ishiba in the vote for LDP leader. Ishiba polled best with the public among the candidates to take over. But he is unpopular within his own party for his public criticism of the policies of Abe, who defeated Ishiba for the party leadership in 2012.
Suga is a safe pair of hands during a health and economic emergency. His first action was to announce a new cabinet, which retains around half the ministers from Abe's tenure.
Abe's adoptive younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, is the new defense minister. Finance Minister Taro Aso and Foreign Minister Katsunobu Kato remain in their posts. Shinjiro Koizumi, the 39-year-old son of charismatic former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, remains environment minister and is seen as a leader-in-waiting. Seiko Hashimoto remains Olympics minister, one of only two women in the 20-member cabinet.
Because Suga, who has served as chief cabinet secretary for all of Abe's eight years, has risen within the ranks, he has not yet had to express any policies or opinions of his own about the direction of government. It's likely he will push for greater privatization of industry. He has no diplomatic experience to speak of, but will have to contend with the winner of November's U.S. elections and handle thorny relations with China and Korea.
Suga only briefly captured the country's attention in April 2019, as the official who announced that the new era under current Emperor Naruhito would be called Reiwa. The term, the first drawn from Japanese rather than Chinese literature, means "good fortune" and "harmony," but has a conservative undertow since "rei" can also mean an "order" or "command."
The new prime minister faces a series of massive challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to afflict Japan, which did an excellent job of combating the initial wave. The Japanese economy is in recession. Gross domestic product contracted 7.8% in the June quarter, from the previous three months, the worst figures since the current record keeping began in 1980. The downturn also wipes out the economic gains of "Abenomics" policies of economic reform.
The world should also now be welcoming home new Olympic gold medalists. But the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are now slated to run from July 23 through August 8 in 2021. Whether that multi-sport event can bring together competitors from all over the world, and whether it takes place before any sort of crowd, is far from clear.
Abenomics was built on three arrows: easy monetary policy, extensive fiscal spending, and structural reform. The first two were comparatively easy to achieve. Abe has pushed on the third, leading to improvements in corporate governance, and above all a renewed sense of confidence among Japan Inc. and the Japanese people. But he has failed to make much headway on issues such as women in the workforce.
Abe was noticeable by his absence in the initial response to Covid-19. Beset by a number of corruption and cronyism scandals, he may well have felt that his star had fallen far enough that it was time to leave before he did permanent damage to his party's popularity. Recent polling since he stepped down saw his popularity ratings rise from the mid-30s to the mid-50s.
Suga will now see out the remainder of Abe's term, which lasts through September 2021. He would then have to stand again for LPD leader - unless he becomes yet another casualty of a system that has rattled through 19 prime ministers in the last 30 years.