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Politics

How Abe's deputy Suga grew to power broker and possible successor

From strawberry fields to red-carpet treatment in Washington

Yoshihide Suga, the right-hand man of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes a walk in Tokyo. (Photo by Mamoru Yago)

NEW YORK -- Like John Lennon, who wrote the 1967 Beatles hit "Strawberry Fields Forever" about his childhood stamping grounds, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has strawberry fields in his past -- real ones.

In contrast to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who both come from prominent families with deep political ties, Suga is the son of a humble strawberry farmer. The prime minister's chief spokesman grew up in Japan's northeastern Akita Prefecture, where the snow can be so deep that just going outside is difficult.

"No matter how harsh the winter is, spring will come and the snow will melt," Suga said, looking back on his childhood struggles. "The countryside taught me perseverance before I knew it."

It has been a long climb from the countryside to the halls of power in Tokyo. But Suga, Abe's right-hand man, has scaled the ranks of Japan's political establishment, and many think he will be next to stand at the top when Abe's term is set to end in 2021.

Suga wrapped up his U.S. visit Saturday, a trip that included meetings with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo -- freshly back from a visit to Iraq --, and Patrick Shanahan, Trump's defense secretary nominee.

The red-carpet treatment was spurred by Abe's close relationship to President Donald Trump and the recognition that Suga is a potential successor to Japan's top seat. "Let's meet again," Suga told each one of them

Suga speaks with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Washington on Friday. (Photo courtesy of the Japanese embassy)

In New York, the chief cabinet secretary also met with the business world, including leaders at S & P Global Ratings and Bank of America. "Watch for Japanese land prices outside major metropolitan areas," Suga said. "They are rising for the first time in 27 years." The executives showed strong interest.

Suga's visit is reminiscent of an Abe visit to Washington in 2005 when he was welcomed by the Bush administration. While merely an acting secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Abe was granted audience with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He also had the opportunity to meet with President George W. Bush at the White House.

When Suga graduated from high school and moved to Tokyo, a political career was not on his radar. He entered Hosei University because it was the cheapest option available and worked in a small cardboard factory in the city to pay his tuition.

While he believed he would have to return to Akita someday, he began to develop a still-nebulous interest in politics, seeing it as the force that moves the world. But the farmer's son lacked the connections to get his foot in the door. His first step into politics involved going to Hosei's career center, where he succeeded in connecting with the head of the alumni association.

Now Suga is Japan's longest-serving chief secretary, logging more than 2,300 days in the post. He starts each morning by waking up at 5, looking over the day's newspapers and taking a 40-minute walk.

His strength has been his willingness to take risks. He rose to his present position by gambling on Abe in the 2012 leadership election in the Liberal Democratic Party, which was then in the opposition.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga with Abe at a March cabinet meeting. Suga has become more popular since revealing the new era name. (Photo by Yuki Nakao)

At the time, no one imagined that Abe could recover from his disastrous stint as prime minister in 2007. Many of the party heavyweights were looking elsewhere, but Suga obtained polling results ahead of the vote that convinced him of Abe's chance to win.

It was then Suga who persuaded Abe to jump into the leadership race.

"Suga has always been a strategist, ever since he was young," said Hachiro Okonogi, an LDP lawmaker with ties to Suga. "Just like in shogi, he moves step by step, and before you know it he's set up a winning position."

The chief cabinet secretary is the linchpin of the cabinet, coordinating policy across ministries and holding two news conferences a day, along with handling emergencies, liaising with the ruling party -- the list goes on.

Chief cabinet secretaries typically fall into one of two categories. One is the chief aide and adviser, who serves the prime minister while honing his own political skills. Examples include Noboru Takeshita in the 1970s and Keizo Obuchi in the 1980s, both of whom later became prime minister themselves.

The other type is the shrewd manager, exemplified by Hiromu Nonaka, who was dubbed the "shadow prime minister" for his skillful steering of parliament and politics.

Suga has elements of both. He visits Abe's office several times a day to exchange opinions and provide support, and he fleshed out the policy details of Abenomics, the prime minister's signature economic plan.

The chief cabinet secretary is also responsible for opening Japan's doors wider to foreign workers with new immigration rules that took effect in April, as well as relaxed visa restrictions that helped drive a surge in foreign tourism. Japan welcomed 31.2 million visitors last year, up from just 8.4 million in 2012.

Last summer, Suga called on wireless carriers to lower rates by 40%, railing against the lack of competition in the sector. Even after the surprise pronouncement touched off a firestorm of criticism from the industry, he continued to push for lower rates.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga unveils the new era name in Tokyo. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

On the political side, Suga has used his connections in the ruling LDP, coalition partner Komeito and conservative opposition party Nippon Ishin no Kai to maintain the Abe administration's power base. He has whipped up multipartisan support for bills expected to be unpopular with the public, minimizing damage to the cabinet.

In April's Hokkaido gubernatorial election, the LDP-endorsed candidate won with Suga's behind-the-scenes support, allowing Abe's party to establish a beachhead in an area where it was relatively weak. Suga's role was unusual, as election strategy is typically the job of top party officials.

Despite all this, the chief cabinet secretary has long been considered a dark horse in the race to succeed Abe because of his devotion to his backstage role. Suga has said that his favorite book is a novel about Toyotomi Hidenaga, younger brother of and aide to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the warlord who unified Japan in the 16th century and ended the Warring States period.

Experts and business chiefs praise Suga, but he lacked popular appeal. But recently, photos of him holding up calligraphy announcing the name of the new Reiwa era went viral on social media. He was dubbed "Uncle Reiwa" -- just as Obuchi, who did the same for the preceding Heisei era, was nicknamed "Uncle Heisei" -- and even called "cute" by some commenters.

Some in the LDP sense a change in the man who had seemed content to remain a stagehand.

Suga has fueled this speculation with his visit to the U.S. It is Suga's first trip abroad in three and a half years. Chief cabinet secretaries rarely travel abroad, owing to their role in crisis management. It is a rare foray into diplomacy, normally Abe's exclusive turf.

Although all eyes are on Suga now, it is not known how he would fare as prime minister. When asked by reporters about his aspirations for the Reiwa era, Suga said, "Drawing foreigners, exporting agricultural goods and supporting the countryside with the hometown tax."

And with the mainstay policies of Abenomics, like monetary easing, approaching what some believe to be their limits, it will not be simple to draw up new policies to keep the economy humming.

Suga visits the Strawberry Fields memorial in New York's Central Park on Saturday morning. (Photo by Shunsuke Shigeta)

What will be the next step for the strawberry farmer's son? At 70, Suga has surpassed the mandatory retirement age of most Japanese companies, but his political career likely still has some way to run.

However, he does have plans beyond the realm of politics. "I'd like to spend three months or so at a language school in Cebu in the Philippines," he said. "Once I can speak a bit of English, I want to spend a year or two traveling the world."

On Saturday morning, a day after meeting Pence, Suga took a stroll in New York's Central Park. He passed the area of the park dubbed Strawberry Fields, in memory of John Lennon, who was shot in the city in 1980.

What went through Suga's mind is not clear. Perhaps he thought about the possibilities that lie ahead. In front of him, on the ground, was engraved the title of Lennon's most famous song: Imagine.

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