27.09.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

A new Japanese Government has Taken Shape

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So, on September 16th, after separate votes were taken in both chambers of the Japanese parliament, Yoshihide Suga was approved as the new Prime Minister, replacing Shinzo Abe, who left this post one year ahead of schedule, before the end of his last (and third in a row) three-year term. Previously, we reported about certain noteworthy circumstances that surround the decision made by Shinzo Abe, who led the Japanese government for longer than any of those who preceded him throughout all of the country’s recent (150-year) history.

The fact that Yoshihide Suga is precisely the one most likely to become the successor to Shinzo Abe as the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and consequently (and so far, about what a little below) “almost automatically” become the prime minister, has been discussed in Japan for a long time, keeping in mind the upcoming general parliamentary elections at the end of next year. This extremely important domestic political event will be preceded by the LDP Congress, during which the issue will be resolved concerning whom to entrust to lead the party right before the political battle.

We should remember that 8 years ago, on the eve of similar elections, the LDP leadership took a risk and, as they say, took that same Shinzo Abe and “brought him back from political oblivion”; five years earlier, he had been forced to resign from his position as prime minister after a series of scandals involving a number of the party’s own ministers. Back then, the opinion that predominated was that quite a promising young politician could say goodbye to his career. This means that in the autumn of 2012 the LDP leadership made a very risky move but, as it turned out, “hit the bull’s-eye”.

In this respect, for now there is nothing “automatic” regarding the prospects for the new prime minister to hold on to the position of LDP leader in a year. It is not even possible to make the traditional reference that “everything depends on him”, since the tectonic processes that have developed in recent years in world politics will undoubtedly affect those abovementioned prospects. We will simply make a reference to the coronavirus pandemic factor, and the drop in the main indicators for the world’s third-largest economy which is directly related to that.

Along with that, we should note the fact that both have taken shape in Japan in a much smoother form than can be seen in its Western partners. But the noise arising from some ordinary scandals which involve both ministers and the prime minister himself is reaching the ears of the “electorate”.  Actually, the victim of all this negative impact was Shinzo Abe, and it was not at all due to “ulcerative colitis”, as was officially proclaimed.

But, of course, Yoshihide Suga’s personality traits will play an important role in what will take place in a year at the LDP congress. It would hardly be an exaggeration to call the new prime minister “an almost ideal bureaucratic machine,” and he successfully served as Chief Cabinet Secretary of the Shinzo Abe government for all eight years acting as one.

The Cabinet Secretariat is the government’s main executive agency. Here, the work of the ministries is coordinated, all the relevant information is collected, and decisions are drafted that are submitted for review by the cabinet of ministers. From this it follows that the Chief Cabinet Secretary can only be a person whose political views completely match those held by the current Prime Minister. For Shinzo Abe, Yoshihide Suga was just the right person. There is evidence that it also a mere friendly relationship which forms a bond between both men.

Perhaps the most common word used with regard to the new cabinet of ministers is “continuity”, which is also confirmed by looking at the makeup of the appointees to ministerial posts. Out of 17 ministers, 7 were members of Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, two of whom, Taro Aso and Toshimitsu Motegi, retained their former key posts as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, and as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, respectively.

The makeup of the new government includes only two women, and that fact, together with some of the previous (rather careless) statements made by Yoshihide Suga on this touchy topic, could provoke another slew of caustic remarks from the feminists aimed at him.

These aforementioned statements concerned a key problem for modern-day Japan that has been designated by the term “the prospect of a national catastrophe” for several years now, and one that can only be prevented by women. This refers to the sharp drop in Japan’s birth rate occurring while the share of elderly people is increasing. It is worth noting that the various international women’s organizations that have been making frequent visits to Japan recently have also neglected this problem. Along with that, people are asking questions which are causing consternation among public- and private-sector managers. From among those, the principal one is associated with the percentage of women present in both the country’s leadership and management at privately-run companies. That notorious issue called harassment, of course, has not been forgotten.

Several years ago, the government set up a special department to develop measures to (at least) try to keep the impending disaster in check. However, this author has not seen any signs that it is performing any activities. Judging by the abovementioned “careless statements”, the new prime minister will take care of this national problem (and it really bears repeating that it is a key one).

The appointment of Nobuo Kishi, who is Shinzo Abe’s younger brother, to the post of Minister of Defense also signals continuity for the political course taken by the new Japanese government. When he was an infant, Nobuo Kishi was adopted by Shinzo Abe’s maternal relatives, whose ancestral lineage includes penultimate Prime Minister’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi (he was Prime Minister in the period from 1957-1960).  The new minister of defense has been actively involved in politics since the beginning of the 2000s, when he held various positions in ministries under several prime ministers.

Observers have drawn attention to a certain special preference that Nobuo Kishi has for the Taiwanese area of focus in Japan’s political course. In particular, a photograph is shown from January 12 this year in which he is pictured with the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen.  It is possible that the factor involving a “special attitude” toward Taiwan on the part of Nobuo Kishi played a “concomitant”, rather than the main role, in selecting a candidate for the post of Minister of Defense. The main thing (apparently still) has to do with the factor of close family ties between Nobuo Kisi and the outgoing prime minister.

Nevertheless, experts are inclined to believe that it was the former that was the (secret) reason for the reaction in China to the makeup of the new Japanese government which took the form of several articles in the Global Times; they specifically speculated about preserving Japan’s “steady ties” with China. And also how it was “unnecessary” for it to follow the American “policy of decoupling” from the PRC, which was previously discussed in NEO.

No major changes should be anticipated in relations between Japan and the US and Russia, including the substantive portions of those issues that Tokyo has with Washington and Moscow. On the very next day after Shinzo Abe announced his resignation, in Guam an emergency meeting of the defense ministers from both countries was held, during which the parties confirmed that everything would be all right with the American-Japanese military and political alliance.

As far as the Russian Federation is concerned, nothing particularly new is bound to occur with the so-called “Problem of the northern territories”, which has firmly taken root in the modern political myths espoused by Japan. It is counterproductive for Japan itself, but not one of the country’s political leaders currently in power would dare deny its validity.

And, finally, we should note the unprecedentedly high level of confidence placed by the “electorate” in the new cabinet of ministers immediately after it took shape. A public opinion poll conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper showed that 64% of respondents trust the new cabinet headed by Yoshihide Suga. This figure is compared with the 52% that Shinzo Abe garnered after his triumphant return to politics at the end of 2012.

This means that so far everything looks very good with the new prime minister in terms of public confidence. But – and this should be repeated – the abovementioned circumstances surrounding the “global” plan are by no means a guarantee of Yoshihide Suga’s success at the LDP congress in the autumn of 2022. In general, serving a tenure as prime minister for a year or less is a rather strange rule that has governed political life in Japan for the last 150 years. In this respect, Shinzo Abe’s career is a rare exception.

But even if Yoshihide Suga retains his post as leader of the LDP, this will no longer provide him and the party with the aforementioned “automatic behavior” in subsequent general parliamentary elections, the way it was “during the era of Shinzo Abe”.

The thing is that just at the time when there are all these vicissitudes described above within the LDP, a new, significant player has appeared on the Japanese political scene in the form of the Constitutional Democratic Party. To put it more precisely, this is the same CDP, but after it merged with another large opposition party. Yukio Edano, an experienced and influential politician, retained his position as the leader of the “new-old” CDP, and he adheres to fashionable views that are (relatively) leftist.

So, and we should repeat this, the new prime minister headed by the “party and government” will face serious internal political collisions. And this, of course, will be nothing unexpected for the former.

In the upcoming struggle, what might work in Yoshihide Suga’s favor is an extremely important “signal of the sky” in Japan, which should be seen as the fact that he was entrusted to make an announcement about the beginning of a new stage in the country’s history: this is the one counted from the date accession to the throne (in this case, May 1st, 2019) took place for the newest emperor.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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