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Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga convinced Shinzo Abe to stage a comeback and has heavily influenced the prime minister's policies in the six years since. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)
Cover Story

How Abe's right-hand man has shaped policy in Japan

Yoshihide Suga has been a driving force behind the prime minister's pro-business approach

TOKYO -- In 2006, when Shinzo Abe was deemed by most members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to be too young for the top job, Yoshihide Suga formed a group of lawmakers to support his bid for leadership of the party -- and the nation.

When Abe became prime minister in September that year, Suga was appointed minister of internal affairs and communications. After Abe resigned as prime minister only a year later, it was Suga who encouraged him to stage a comeback.

Using poll numbers and other data, Suga convinced Abe that he could win. He eventually succeeded in persuading him to run in the LDP leadership election again.

Abe rewarded Suga's contribution to his return to power by appointing him chief cabinet secretary, a post he has retained for six years since the start of Abe's second tenure. Suga has also had an outsize role in driving the prime minister's policy agenda, including the decisions to accept more foreign workers and demand a 40% cut in mobile phone charges from telecoms companies.

Suga stands in sharp contrast to Abe, the scion of a family with an outstanding political pedigree. Suga hails from Akita Prefecture in northeastern Japan and worked his way through university in Tokyo. He entered the world of politics by becoming a secretary to a lower house lawmaker elected from Kanagawa Prefecture, which is adjacent to Tokyo. Then, he was elected to the municipal assembly of Yokohama, the prefecture's capital.

In 1996, Suga was elected to the lower house of the Diet. In his third year as a lawmaker, he made a move that surprised many politicians and political pundits. At that time, the LDP was controlled by a handful of powerful political factions, and Suga belonged to the largest, led by then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. But when Seiroku Kajiyama, a former LDP secretary-general, split from the group, Suga went with him, throwing his support behind Kajiyama in the party election -- not the kind of move people expected from a rookie legislator.

Suga garnered support from voters in his district by using retail political tactics known as tsuji-dachi, or street-corner speeches. During his election campaigns, he could be seen every morning standing in front of a train station, greeting businesspeople who were commuting from Yokohama to Tokyo, speaking about his policy proposals and conducting surveys. This grass roots campaigning helped him survive the 2009 lower house election, which gave the LDP a bloody nose. Over the years since then, Suga has built an unshakable support base.

Suga's political views and stances are significantly different from those of Abe's typical confidants and political allies. He is a tough-minded pragmatist who was a key factor behind Abe's shift from focusing on changing Japan's pacifist constitution to jump-starting the nation's economy.

He makes a point of meeting as many people as possible, does not drink and spends weekends studying policy issues with bureaucrats at hotels. Never emotional or impetuous, Suga inspires awe among bureaucrats.

In 2012, when Abe assumed power again, Suga published a book titled "Seijika no kakugo," or "commitments as a politician." Its Japanese subtitle: "Move bureaucrats."

Nobody doubts that Suga will continue holding a key government or party post if Abe is re-elected for a third term in the upcoming LDP presidential poll.

Should Abe be forced to step down before the end of his next term for some reason, one of the leading candidates to succeed him would be Shigeru Ishiba, who is challenging Abe's leadership in the LDP presidential poll.

But the question is who in the Abe camp will emerge as his heir. Both Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, two outstanding figures among Abe supporters, are advanced in age.

It would be hardly surprising if a chorus of calls for Suga's leadership emerges within the ruling party.

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