Home / Asia and Pacific / The Rise of Suga: Prospects and Problems for Japan’s New Prime Minister

The Rise of Suga: Prospects and Problems for Japan’s New Prime Minister

22 October, 2020

By Luke Austin – Research Assistant

Shinzo Abe has caused a significant commotion recently with his resignation. What has perhaps caused just as much of a disturbance is the election of his successor, a veteran LDP politician of more humble origins by the name of Yoshihide Suga. Unlike his predecessor, who came from a distinguished political family, Suga originates from a family of strawberry farmers in the largely rural Akita prefecture. Suga finally made his international debut at the 75th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 25 September. In a video message posted on YouTube by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), Suga addressed a variety of issues including, of course, the coronavirus pandemic. Suga’s message did deal with some truly relevant issues, although it seems that Suga has already started to brush some other key issues under the carpet.

First, there are the issues facing Suga on the domestic level. The largest elephant in the room is the conservatives’ push towards constitutional reform. To be more specific, the LDP has made it an essential policy to revise Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution: the very piece of legislation which explicitly forbids the creation and possession of armed forces by Japan which has in turn dictated much of Japanese domestic as well as foreign policy since the nation’s defeat at the end of the bloodiest war in human history. The current Constitution of Japan, which replaced the Meiji Constitution in 1947, is part of the legacy of the post-war occupation of Japan and is subsequently a symbol of Japan’s transition into a democratic state from an autocratic one. As one pioneering Japanologist described this period, which lasted from 1945 to 1952: “Certainly no occupation, other than one of outright conquest, has been so dedicated to political and social reform”. It is perhaps no surprise then, that changes to military legislation at the end of 2015 which enabled the Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) to conduct operations abroad dedicated to “collective self-defence” did more than raise a few eyebrows.

It is worth remembering that many of Abe’s associates (including Suga) are members of Nippon Kaigi, the famous revisionist and ultra-conservative organisation which wields considerable influence in Japanese politics. Aside from constitutional revision, Nippon Kaigi advocates the introduction of nationalistic school curriculums as part of a drive to reinterpret Japan’s role in World War Two, including the playing-down or very denial of various associated controversies ranging from the comfort women issue to the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. These sorts of controversies are nothing new: the enshrinement and subsequent deification of the souls of 14 Class A war criminals at the infamous Yasukuni Shrine alongside those of the remaining 2.46 million Japanese who perished during the Second World War occurred in 1978, with visits to the shrine by various Prime Ministers attracting their fair share of national and international criticism over the years. This kind of provocative behaviour is undoubtedly a symbolic supplement for revisionist politics.

Post-war pacifism, embedded in foreign policy doctrines such as that of the legendary Takeo Fukuda presented in 1977, allowed Japan to reap massive economic benefits. However, in the face of evolving post-Cold War security dynamics such as a rising People’s Republic of China (PRC), an erratic North Korea and the emergence of certain non-state actors such as ISIS, Japan began to flex its military muscle. Following the passing of the aforementioned legislation reinterpreting the JSDF’s abilities to act in “collective self-defence”, there were controversial JSDF deployments to South Sudan, a cover-up which cost then-Defence Minister Tomomi Inada her job in July 2017. Perhaps it is not surprising that Suga made a very brief reference to the “Proactive Contribution to Peace” policy in his recent video message. Owing to the continuing influence of Nippon Kaigi within the LDP-Kōmeitō coalition, Suga is nevertheless likely to continue Abe’s revisionism: it would be political suicide to back out of this project when so much has been achieved.

On the foreign policy front, Suga’s intentions are not so obvious. While a recent telephone call between Suga and PRC premier Xi Jinping seemed to go well, it is unclear whether he will respect the PRC’s request to not consolidate ties with Taiwan. In Sino-Japanese relations the Taiwan controversy is, however, what one could call a mere piece of the jigsaw. First, there is the territorial dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the South China Sea: despite the islands’ purchase by the Japanese government from private Japanese owners in 2012, Beijing regularly asserts that they are PRC territory and still refer to them as the Diaoyu Islands. In his final couple of weeks as Chief Cabinet Secretary, Suga went as far as to deny the very existence of the Senkaku Islands issue, emphasising the “notion of firmly responding to repeated violations of territorial waters by Chinese authorities”. It can be inferred from this that Suga is unlikely to broker a compromise with the PRC over the status of the islands: it is impossible to reach agreement when you deny the very existence of the issue. Second, despite the considerable volume and magnitude of trade between the PRC and Japan, they are nothing short of economic rivals. The PRC overtook Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy just over a decade ago, and Tokyo is unwilling to let Japan’s economy descend any further through the global rankings. This is reflected in Japan’s willingness to counter Chinese influence on a regional and global scale through multilateral structures, which include the recent Trilateral Indo-Pacific Partnership on Infrastructure Investment with the United States and Australia, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) with India joining Japan at its helm, as well as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD or also known as “the Quad”) between all four nations. At the recent landmark UNGA session, Suga did indeed assert Japan’s continuation of promoting “a Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. It does not take much imagination to recognise this veiled reference to Japan’s willingness to compete with China in the Indo-Pacific, especially through these relatively modern multilateral formats. It will therefore be unsurprising if Suga has second thoughts about inviting his Chinese counterpart to Japan.

North Korea has taken a more aggressive stance since 2017 towards Japan. Missiles have actually been launched through Japanese territory, highlighting the risks faced by Japan should it pursue a more hawkish foreign policy. However, this has done little to dissuade the conservatives, who seem ready to embrace a new wave of sabre-rattling and remilitarisation under Suga. Another major issue is that involving the abduction of Japanese nationals by the DPRK government in the 1970s and 1980s, which Suga did address in his recent video message. This was not the first time he addressed this particular issue. At a press conference on 29 July, Suga stated: “I would like to do my utmost to realize the return of the abductees as soon as possible without missing any chances”. The fact that this abduction issue was directly referred to in Suga’s video message in much more depth than the DRPK nuclear issue goes to show how much importance Suga has attached to repatriating the abductees with their families. We do not yet know how Suga will accomplish this herculean task. After all, some of those abducted have reportedly died, and even those still alive may well have reservations about returning to a country which they have not seen in four decades. Even should Suga secure a meeting with Kim Jong-Un, we must not interpret this as automatic grounds for resolution of any issues. After all, the 2019 North Korea–United States Hanoi Summit ended in disappointment after all the hype generated by the previous year’s meeting between Trump and Kim in Singapore. It remains to be seen whether Suga will have any more success than Trump in this respect, even should one assume that Kim would consider the idea of meeting his Japanese counterpart.

Japan’s problems involving the Korean peninsula do not end there. South Korean-Japanese bilateral relations have experienced a rough patch recently, with harsh words being exchanged over two related controversies: that of forced labour of Koreans enacted by Japan during the Second World War for which South Korea expects Japanese compensation, as well as the export curbs introduced by Japan on high-tech materials in response to Japanese firms being taken to court over the aforementioned compensation claims. A telephone call between Suga and President Moon on 24 September did little to ease tensions, with neither side mentioning these sensitive topics. Both leaders face scathing domestic criticism in the case of compromises, which could entail a considerable loss of face for either nation. Suga could well invite South Korea to participate in some of the multilateral infrastructure projects mentioned above to facilitate meaningful dialogue and consolidate the takokukanshugi or “multilateralism” which he seems to be rather fond of. How the Moon administration would react to such an invitation is another matter. In the worst-case scenario, this would be interpreted as a cynical Japanese attempt to “bribe” South Korea and encourage them to simply “let bygones be bygones”.

In his video message to the UNGA, Suga referred to the coronavirus pandemic as a “human security crisis” before emphasising the importance of the concept of human security in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), before vowing to hold the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2021 “as proof that humanity has defeated the pandemic”. Suga will thus have ample opportunity to deflect attention from some of the aforementioned domestic and foreign policy issues for the time being. Suga could soften some of the criticism of Japan developing its hard power capabilities by, somewhat ironically, treating the international community to a prominent and much-awaited display of Japan’s legendary soft power. Presentation of Japanese soft power through terms such as “Cool Japan” has been taken very seriously by both the public and private sectors. It has been 56 years since Japan last hosted the Olympics. While the 1964 Olympic Games came to represent Japan’s post-World War Two recovery and remarkable economic growth, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were supposed to represent Japan’s recovery from the economic strife of the 1990s and 2000s, as well as from the catastrophic impact of the events of March 2011 which included an earthquake, a tsunami and nuclear meltdown in the country’s northeast. Should the Tokyo 2021 Olympics represent Japan bouncing back from the coronavirus pandemic, then this would in itself augment Japanese soft power by setting an example for other nations which are emerging from the shadow of economic despair and unprecedentedly large loss of life. It is this setting of an example which is key to developing soft power, as Joseph S. Nye Jr. stated: “Governments can attract or repel others by the influence of their example”.

A successful 2021 Olympics may also provide fertile ground for Suga to hold a snap election in order to consolidate his position and weaken the already-fragmented opposition, which has only very recently and begrudgingly started to unify again as demonstrated by the merger between the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Democratic Party of the People (DPP): not all of the DPP members actually agreed to this merger, with some more conservative elements forming their own party. This implies that the opposition has never really recovered from the downfall of the Democratic Party of Japan in 2016 and that of its merger the Democratic Party in 2018. Despite Suga’s assertions that an election does not come near the top of his list of priorities at the moment, his priorities may well change a year from now depending on the outcome of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, assuming that they will be held. In any case, Suga definitely does have something to be happy about. According to a public opinion poll carried out by Japanese television network TV Asahi, the approval rating for Suga’s cabinet stood at 62.3% towards the end of September. In contrast, support for Abe’s cabinet in August stood at a mere 37.4%, indicating a considerable improvement in the prospects for the ruling coalition following Suga’s election.

In conclusion, we can safely say that Suga has his work cut out for him. The geopolitical and economic situation facing Japan could definitely be worse, although it would not take much effort to further antagonise unfriendly yet economically important neighbours such as the PRC. One may even be tempted to draw comparisons between Suga and Theresa May: the British Prime Minister who was, like Suga, elected by her own party and seemed to inherit an intimidating set of tasks. While Suga does not have the job of negotiating his country’s departure from a politico-economic union, he has nonetheless inherited a volatile domestic and foreign policy environment which has been made all the more uncertain and unpredictable by coronavirus. It has been emphasised that Japanese Prime Ministers often do not last long in office. As long as Suga is not implicated in any such controversies as his predecessor was, for example, implicated in the Moritomo Gakuen incident, then he at least has a fighting chance. Carrying on Abenomics, pursuing a less hawkish foreign policy and going through with his Olympic and Paralympic crusade will perhaps ensure that he lasts a bit longer than those six Prime Ministers who swiftly moved into and vacated the Prime Ministerial residence known as the Kantei between 2006 and 2012.

Image: Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (Source: kantei.go.jp – 菅内閣の発足// 内閣官房内閣広報室 via Government of Japan Standard Terms of Use (Ver.2.0)  

About Luke Austin

Luke Austin has recently completed his MA with distinction in Governance and Global Affairs at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He wrote his master’s dissertation on the levels of consistency and contradiction between actual policy-making and political discourse in the framework of EU-Russia relations. Luke also holds a BA in Japanese and Russian from the University of Leeds. He has previously interned for the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow.