Japan’s new PM Yoshihide Suga, self-made and strong-willed

TOKYO (AP) — Before he got Japan’s top government job officially, Yoshihide Suga was known as a “shadow” prime minister and the right-hand man for his long-serving predecessor.

When Shinzo Abe announced last month he would resign due to ill health, his chief Cabinet secretary Suga said he would come forward to pursue Abe’s unfinished work.

The self-made politician was elected by Parliament yesterday as Japan’s new Prime Minister, two days after he succeeded Abe as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Suga’s low-key image from government briefings contrast with his behind-the-scenes work at managing bureaucrats and pushing policies.

As the chief Cabinet spokesman under Abe, the straight-faced Suga offered bland commentary at twice-daily televised news briefings highlighted last year when he became known as “Uncle Reiwa” in unveiling Emperor Naruhito’s imperial era name.

But behind the scenes, Suga is known for his stubbornness, an iron-fist approach as a policy coordinator and influencing bureaucrats by using the power of the Prime Minister’s office, leading political watchers to call him the “shadow prime minister”.

TV sets show a live footage of Yoshihide Suga as he is elected as Japan’s new Prime Minister, at an electric store in Fukuoka, southern Japan. PHOTO: AP

Some bureaucrats who opposed his policies have said they were removed from government projects or transferred to another posts. Suga himself recently said he would continue to do so.

As his parents’ eldest son, Suga defied tradition by leaving for Tokyo rather than taking over the family strawberry farm in Akita prefecture. He worked at a cardboard factory before entering university, paying his tuition while working part-time jobs, including one at the Tsukiji fish market.

His classmates remember Suga as a quiet but a person of determination. Suga, who played baseball in junior high school, insisted on his batting form despite an instructor’s advise, saying his style made better sense, his old friend Masashi Yuri told Mainichi newspaper.

Apparently Suga was not talking off the cuff, and practiced and mastered an example of a pro-baseball star from Akita.

“Once he makes a decision, he never sways and he is still the same.” He was a secretary to former trade minister Hikosaburo Okonogi for 11 years before becoming a Yokohama city assemblyman in 1987.

“I jumped into politics, where I had no connection or relatives, literary starting from zero, he said on Monday.

Suga was elected to the Lower House in 1996 at age 47, a late start compared to political heirs like Abe, the third-generation political blue-blood elected to Parliament at age 29.