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Interview

Abe always saw Suga as one to carry his policy torch

Exclusive interview: Former PM regrets failure to persuade Trump to rejoin TPP

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe defended Abenomics in an interview Nikkei, saying, 'We fully achieved our goal.' 

TOKYO -- Shinzo Abe had considered Yoshihide Suga a candidate to be Japan's next prime minister for "quite some time," but was uncertain whether his longtime right-hand man wanted the role, the former leader told Nikkei in an exclusive interview.

Portions of the interview with Abe have been previously published.

Abe praised the new prime minister's skill at picking up on public sentiment and translating it into concrete policy, such as his crusade against high wireless service fees, while also stressing Suga's work in the foreign policy arena in his prior role as chief cabinet secretary.

Abe also defended his own economic track record with Abenomics, pointing to critics who say his administration failed to achieve its goal of sustained price growth.

"We added 4 million new jobs," he said. "We fully achieved our goal."

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What do you think of Suga following you as prime minister?

A: I was quite relieved that it was Suga, because as chief cabinet secretary, he was in the policy nerve center of my administration and fully understands everything.

Q: Was it around July or August that you started thinking of him as a potential successor?

A: I considered him to be qualified quite some time before then. After that, the question was whether Suga was willing to do it.

Thinking about it now, people were starting to talk about a "post-Abe" leader in just a year from now [after the term ending next September], and Suga himself may have started considering that option. Once support for him picked up, it's only natural that he would start wanting to [run for leadership]. Politicians always think about that.

Q: It's been said that you had former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in mind to succeed you.

A: Kishida is a truly honest politician. He got great results as foreign minister. He has none of the self-centeredness that you tend to see in politicians. It's true that some say he's not good at getting his message across.

The short-term political situation changed with my sudden resignation, and unfortunately, the timing probably didn't work in his favor. But he put in a good showing in the latter half of the campaign.

Q: Suga's administration has come out with a string of concrete policy measures.

A: Suga came from [rural] Akita Prefecture, and he's kept winning elections in an urban area of Yokohama with a lot of swing votes. He's very good at picking up on what people are thinking and how they feel.

When he saw that wireless service fees were taking up a larger share of household budgets, he pushed for rates to be brought down. When he heard that the cost of fertility treatments was a heavy burden at a time when we need to increase our birthrate, he moved to reduce that burden.

He keeps his antenna up and responds to what he hears with specific policies. He's set a very good pace.

Q: Some observers say that Suga is still untested when it comes to top-level diplomacy.

A: His phone calls with world leaders have been going smoothly. I heard from Suga himself that he and U.S. President [Donald] Trump had a very good rapport during their call.

While he was chief cabinet secretary, he frequently exchanged views with the U.S. ambassador and others over breakfast, and he was involved in various negotiations. He already understands the main keys to diplomacy. And he's trusted by the American side. He met with Vice President [Mike] Pence when he visited the U.S. in 2019.

The fact that he was at the core of my administration as chief cabinet secretary for the entire seven years and eight months is reassuring to others. That's an asset in diplomacy.

Q: Suga still has unresolved issues to handle, including North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals.

A: Suga also served as minister for the abduction issue [between 2018 and 2020] while he was chief cabinet secretary, and he fully understands the importance and difficulty of this problem for Japan. I believe he also understands the feelings of the families of abductees. I can leave that to him in full confidence.

Q: If you had to give Suga a piece of advice, what would it be?

A: Suga has always had an extremely strong desire for reform. That's easiest at the beginning of an administration when there's momentum. He should leverage that momentum and be daring, without worrying about blowback.

Q: Some argue that Suga should dissolve the lower house for a snap election while his cabinet's approval rating is still high.

A: That is the hardest decision a prime minister can make. It's something you have to determine on your own, without consulting with anyone else. [A snap election] is a competition with the fate of your administration on the line. I think Suga should decide based on his finely honed judgment as a politician and the intuition he has cultivated.

Q: Looking back on your administration, you laid out your Abenomics program soon after starting your second stint as prime minister in December 2012.

A: The three arrows of monetary easing, fiscal policy and growth strategies did change the mood. Stock prices improved first, then the companies that had moved abroad amid the excessive appreciation of the yen all changed their policies.

Q: Your administration didn't achieve its goal of 2% inflation, which you had initially aimed to reach within two years.

A: The real purpose of that [target] was to create conditions for sustainable expansion of nominal gross domestic product, steady investment and rising salaries. At the same time, it was important for us to improve the job market. During U.S. presidential elections and in the rest of the world, employment is always the big issue.

We added 4 million new jobs. We fully achieved our goal.

Q: You postponed an increase in the consumption tax twice.

A: Raising the tax rate is meaningless if revenue doesn't increase. Breaking the back of the economy would defeat the purpose [of a hike]. The decision to postpone it at that time was not a mistake.

Q: Japan led the Trans-Pacific Partnership regional trade deal to completion, but the U.S. pulled out.

A: I tried hard to persuade President Trump, but he said that it was difficult because he had made a campaign pledge to leave the TPP negotiations. He largely did what he promised during the election, including leaving the Paris [climate change] accord and moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. It's impressive, in a way.

Q: Will you call on the U.S. to return to the TPP?

A: I think that will be difficult during the Trump administration. The Japan-U.K. economic partnership agreement that we reached a broad accord on toward the end of my administration should come first. U.K. Prime Minister [Boris] Johnson has also expressed interest in participating in the TPP. The atmosphere will change significantly if the U.K. joins.

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