TOKYO, Sept 16 — Yoshihide Suga, the man set to be elected Japan’s next prime minister today, is a farmer’s son with a reputation for inscrutability who has been a key government adviser and policy enforcer.
The 71-year-old easily won the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership race on Monday, and is all but certain to win a parliamentary vote today and replace outgoing premier Shinzo Abe.
Suga’s election will cap a career that has seen him serve in several key political roles, including most recently as chief cabinet secretary — an office that involves coordinating policy and bringing government agencies and the bureaucracy to heel.
He has also been the face of Abe’s government, serving as its top spokesman and defending decisions in daily press conferences, including in sometimes testy exchanges with reporters.
While the chief cabinet secretary role has in the past been a stepping stone to the prime minister’s office, Suga had regularly said he was not interested in the top job.
But soon after Abe announced in late August that he would resign over health issues, Suga emerged as the leading choice to succeed him, with key LDP factions throwing their support behind him.
Suga has earned a somewhat fearsome reputation for wielding his power to control Japan’s sprawling and powerful bureaucracy and help push through government policies.
“People think I’m terribly scary, especially bureaucrats,” he said during a leadership debate.
“But I’m very kind… to those who work seriously.”
‘Started from zero’
The son of a strawberry farmer and a schoolteacher, Suga was raised in rural Akita in northern Japan and put himself through college after moving to Tokyo by working at a factory.
He was elected to his first office in 1987, as a municipal assembly member in Yokohama outside Tokyo, and entered parliament in 1996.
He made reference to his background in accepting the party’s nomination as leader, saying he “started from zero”.
“I, with this background, was able to become the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party with all its history and tradition,” he said.
“I will devote the whole of myself to Japan and the Japanese people.”
A long-time backer of Abe, Suga pushed him to stand for a second term despite his disastrous first run in office, which ended after just a year.
When Abe defied the odds and returned to power in 2012, he appointed Suga to the powerful chief cabinet secretary role, from which he is said to have helped push through several landmark Abe policies, including a loosening of restrictions on foreign workers.
Suga’s own political views are something of a mystery, though he has championed policies to help revitalise rural areas, as well as bring down mobile phone costs.
Experts say he is pragmatic rather than ideological, and he is seen by lawmakers along the political spectrum within the LDP as a neutral figure.
200 sit-ups a day
But his rather anodyne image got something of a reboot last year with the declaration of a new imperial era to mark the ascension to the throne of Emperor Naruhito.
It was Suga who unveiled the much-awaited name for the era: Reiwa. And the image of him holding up the hand-drawn calligraphy for the name earned him the affectionate nickname “Uncle Reiwa”.
He has allowed only occasional glimpses into his personal life, with his wife and three children far from the spotlight.
But he has revealed in interviews that he bookends his day with 100 sit-ups in the morning and 100 in the evening, and has a weakness for pancakes.
“Since I don’t drink alcohol at all and I have said I like sweets like pancakes, my image has changed a lot,” he lamented recently.
“But actually, I want people to say, ‘He is scary when it comes to his job.’” — AFP