Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga has fallen on his sword. Suga announced today that he will not be seeking reelection as leader of his party (the LDP), in effect resigning as prime minister in the process. The decision came without warning but wasn’t a huge surprise: Suga’s government is polling horribly at the moment and it was feared that the dour and unpopular leader would be a significant drag on his party’s prospects in the upcoming general election.
Suga’s farewell after just a year in the job makes it feel like the good old days again, when a revolving door at the prime ministerial residence in Nagatacho saw Japanese premieres enter and exit at a rate of about one a year. It was genuinely hard to keep up – as US secretary of state Madeleine Albright famously found when she asked her security advisor and top aides at a meeting to name the seven Japanese leaders from during the Clinton presidency. No one could do it.
Shinzo Abe (2006-7 and 2012-2012) changed this natural rhythm, staying longer than any prime minister in history, ably assisted (controlled some say) by Suga, who was then his right hand man (his brain some say). When Abe finally departed, beset by recurring health problems – and the lingering Cherry Blossom scandal – he ushered Suga into the top job with a famously cryptic comment: ‘Leave it to Suga’.
But what was left to Suga wasn't exactly clear. Did this mean Abe’s uncompleted mission of reform, especially of Article 9 of the constitution, which forbids Japan from engaging in war? Or the bundle of intractable problems that had accumulated towards the end of Abe’s second stint in office?
If Abe was referring to the latter, a more generous appraisal of Suga’s brief tenure is possible, for there can hardly ever have been more of a hospital pass of an appointment than his. Suga faced not just the still flowering Cherry Blossom scandal, but the ongoing pandemic, and the gloomy spectre of the Tokyo Olympics, which faced so many scandals, and teetered on the brink of a humiliating cancellation for so long, that ‘cursed’ and even ‘doomed’ became firmly collocated with ‘Tokyo Olympics'.
But the Cherry Blossom scandal didn’t drag Suga down; and the games, somehow, went off without a hitch. It went off without any supporters in the stadiums either, but in the searing heat and with the promised air conditioning in the Olympic stadium quietly shelved, this may have been a lucky break. Given the lowest ever expectations in Olympic history, Tokyo 2020/1 could even have been counted a success, of sorts.
Suga got no credit for it, though, and he has received none for his handling of the pandemic either. This may be a little unfair; as while the endless cycles of ‘states of emergency’ has been wearisome, the vaccine roll out sluggish, and reports of hospitals being at full stretch a constant worry, it is also true to say that deaths in Japan remain, comparatively, very low (16,000 in a population of 126,000,000). Niggling restrictions on hospitality have hit that sector hard, but most things have remained open and normal life has gone on much as before. It is hardly an unalloyed triumph, but Suga hasn’t panicked, and it’s a long way from the situation in Australia, or New Zealand, or France; or the UK (quarantine at Narita airport, for example, is paid for by the government).
Suga’s true downfall may be due to his isolation within his own party and lack of popular appeal. In a move that smacked of desperation, he recently announced his wish to replace his chief sponsor Toshihiro Nikkai the 82-year old LDP General Secretary and veteran string puller in a bid to ‘freshen up’ his top team’. But in the chronically factional LDP without strong connections to the ‘shadow shogun(s)’ your chances of advancement or survival are slim.
The public won’t miss Suga: excruciatingly ill at ease in the spotlight, he lacked even the most basic PR skills. This is despite Suga apparently being sociable – he reportedly attends dinners and drinking sessions (though teetotal himself) every night. He is also an accomplished essayist and an avid reader. But he never let the mask, the metaphorical not the Covid one, slip, to allow even a glimpse of the inner man.
The press won’t miss him either. Suga managed to get journalists he didn’t like excluded from his press conferences, though since they were deathly affairs, this might have been a blessing in disguise. One of the few reporters prepared to challenge Suga, Isoko Mochizuki of Tokyo Shimbum, after receiving his trademark stonewall answers, lashed out at him with:
‘What exactly do you think the purpose of a presser is supposed to be?’
Suga declined to answer.
So who’s next? The favourite is Fumio Kishida, the foreign minister, a relatively jejune 64, though with great experience. He is believed to favour more welfare spending, greater Covid restrictions, and is reported to be Dovish on the question of Taiwan, which is likely to be the next big foreign policy problem.
He missed out on a potential leadership bid in 2018. Kingmaker and former PM Taro Aso was quoted as saying ‘Kishida is a man for quiet times, not troubled times’. The same could have been said of Suga, or almost any Japanese prime minister.