TOKYO—The right-hand man of Japan’s longest-reigning Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who orchestrated the administration’s control of the press and helped cover up the corruption scandals that forced Abe to resign, is set to be the next prime minister.
Yoshihide Suga was crowned the president of Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), on Monday in an election that had been pre-decided in back-room deals. The LDP controls the lower house of Japan’s parliament and so their president will become the new prime minister. The Japanese press, who Suga has successfully tamed, did their best to spin his ascension as a story of a simple hard-working boy from a rural prefecture who worked his way to the top. But the real Suga is no country bumpkin. He is an information junkie, a control freak, loyal to his boss to a fault, ruthless, vindictive, and never forgets a favor or a slight. In a way, he shares many of the qualities that would make him an ideal number two in any yakuza organization in Japan; indeed, his past ties to the yakuza may come to haunt him as he takes power.
Who is Yoshihide Suga?
The best authority on Yoshihide Suga turns out to be himself. He has written a book, The Resolution of a Politician (2012), and is a skilled essayist who has been published in Japanese periodicals. Suga, age 71, was born in a farming village in Akita Prefecture where his wealthy family reportedly had a successful strawberry plantation. While most people in the area entered the labor force after graduating from middle school, Suga went on to high school. By 38 he had entered politics as Yokohama City Council Member, and within a decade he was in the national parliament. When Abe ran for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party in 2006, Suga backed him all the way.
As Abe rose politically, so did Suga. When Abe—plagued by scandal and illness, was no longer able to stomach being the PM in 2007—he resigned for the first time. Suga, ever the loyal vassal, did not abandon his master even in semi-political exile. By helping him win the backing of the powerful right-wing lobby and Shinto cult, Nippon Kaigi, Suga paved Abe's way for a return to power.
Suga is the longest serving cabinet secretary in Japanese history, and it is a crucial position. The cabinet secretary speaks to the press twice a day and in some ways may be said to actually rule the country. The secretary coordinates policy across government ministries, is the conduit between the prime minister and his political party, is on-call 24/7 to deal with crisis management, and is sometimes called “the shadow prime-minister.” A 2016 book by Isao Mori, The Reflection Of The Prime Minister, details just how powerful Suga had become in his position.
Suga’s own political accomplishments are rather minor. He is credited for getting telecommunications operators to drop their comparatively high-priced mobile phone rates. He pushed for the relaxation of visa rules to spur tourism in Japan. He masterminded the furusato nōzei (hometown tax donation) program, which permits tax reductions for those who make donations to the municipality of their choice.
Suga, despite his dour demeanor, is immensely sociable. He spends each night attending several dinner and drinking sessions with journalists, politicians, academics, influential power brokers, and sometimes bureaucrats. They may get drunk but he never does; Suga doesn’t touch alcohol. He has different thirsts: a thirst for power, a thirst for respect, a thirst for influence. For breakfast, he dines with businessmen, CEOs, and economists. He stays in good shape; he does 100 sit-ups a day and has a spartan fitness regimen.
He is also an avid reader. One of his favorite books is a novel about Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) who rose from a peasant background to become one of the most powerful rulers in Japan. It’s easy to see why Suga admires him. Toyotomi operated in the shadows most of his life but when he seized power, he ruled effectively and brutally. He launched a failed war to take over Korea in 1592, a war of such epic cruelty that even Japanese scholars of the time noted the terrible atrocities. Toyotomi was also very vain, despite the fact that Lord Nobunaga had dubbed him “kozaru” (little monkey) because of his simian appearance and stature. In the LDP, some of Suga’s opponents call him “kozaru” behind his back—but never to his face.
Friends in dark places
The ruling LDP party has long running links to the yakuza, so it’s no surprise that as Suga is about to become prime minister some of his questionable ties to the traditional Japanese mafia are being re-examined.
The magazine Shukan Shincho notes that Suga was closely connected to yakuza-related firm Suruga Corporation, which was once listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The firm paid a Yamaguchi-gumi Goto-Gumi front company millions of dollars to evict elderly tenants and small businesses from properties they wanted to develop between 2001 and 2008. During this period, the company regularly donated money to Suga’s political fund. All of this came to light in March of 2008, when the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department arrested yakuza members for illegally evicting tenants. No one from Suruga Corporation was arrested–because technically at the time, it wasn’t illegal to hire yakuza for unsavory business practices.
The firm was also well-connected and had placed an ex-prosecutor and former National Police Agency officer on their board. An investigator on the case told The Daily Beast, “Suga and the president of Suruga Corporation, Iwata, were close friends. I can’t believe that Suga had no idea what was going on. The company did a lot of business in his electoral district.”
In fact, one tenant who confronted the yakuza trying to evict her on behalf of Suruga was told during the negotiations, “Suga has Suruga Corporation’s back on this. Just give up and get out.”
At the time, the scandal broke, Suruga’s office told the press, “We had no awareness of such things happening.” Suga’s office reportedly later returned the political donations from Suruga Corporation.
In November of last year, another yakuza problem emerged. A photo of Suga posing with a yakuza boss, at a cherry blossom viewing ceremony hosted by Prime Minister Abe, came into circulation. When Suga was questioned about it, he refused to answer by saying that it was impossible to define “anti-social forces”—a euphemism for yakuza. His remarks ended up empowering the yakuza. Many of the laws in place to counter organized crime depend on there being a definition of the term.
Information junkie and control freak
When Abe returned to power in 2012, he faced three challenges. One was to make the public forget his disastrous first term in office. Two, to rein in Japan’s press, which might report on new scandals or poor decisions made by the PM. Three, tame Japan’s independent bureaucracy and government agencies to make sure that they followed Abe’s policy. Suga has taken on those tasks successfully. He was the architect of a plan to restrict and muzzle the media systematically. In 2012, Japan was ranked 22nd in the world press freedom rankings determined by Reporters Without Borders; it now hovers around 66th place. Suga deserves credit for that significant drop.
Suga forged Abe’s strategy of wining-and-dining the top management of Japan’s newspaper and television stations while shutting out critical media from major stories. He has endeared himself to some members of the cabinet press club, which has helped him ensure he gets to see almost all questions before a press conference, and he actively works to limit questions that might embarrass the government. When a tough question slips by, he is able to lie with stoic aplomb, as he has done throughout numerous scandals. He has been instrumental in getting news anchors and outspoken commentators removed from Japan’s few hard-hitting news programs.
In the numerous corruption scandals involving the prime minister and his appointees, Suga has knowingly lied to the press about the existence of documents and evidence. Some reporters have pointed this out, to their regret. He does not deal with dissent gracefully. Especially from female reporters.
Suga has a particularly prickly relationship with Tokyo Shimbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki, who is one of the few reporters in the press club who will ask him tough questions. She has the audacity to follow up when he evades the question. He attempted to have her removed from the press club and snubbed her for months on end.
She has become a popular hero to some for standing up to him and not backing down, which inspired a critically acclaimed documentary and the surprise hit movie Newspaper Reporter in 2019. At a press conference related to Abe’s role in approving construction for a school inappropriately, when Suga kept evading questions, she asked, “What exactly do you think the purpose of a presser is supposed to be?”
He responded, “There is no need to answer your question.”
Mochizuki wrote in Weekly Post magazine last week, “That is the essence of his problem. He doesn’t understand that when he is talking to the press that he is talking to the people who read the papers, the public, and that he has a duty to inform them.”
In 2015, Suga’s former personal secretary, Itaru Nakamura, who had been appointed the police chief in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, squashed an investigation into the rape of journalist Shiori Ito. The man accused of rape was a friend of Suga and had written two glowing biographies of Abe. Suga was consulted before Nakamura halted the arrest.
When Shiori Ito won a civil lawsuit against the man last year, Suga refused to comment on the case. When Nakamura was promoted to a high-ranking position in the National Police Agency this January, Suga responded to questions about the propriety of the decision by answering, “He’s the right person, in the right place.” Ironically, one of the reasons Abe resigned is that Nakamura was not chosen to be the head of the National Police Agency.
It was also Suga who is credited with masterminding a plan to change the laws so that a high-ranking prosecutor close to Abe, Hiromu Kurokawa, could become the top prosecutor in the country. This would have ensured that Abe, and possibly Suga as well, would be immune to criminal investigation. That plan failed terribly and the backlash drove down Abe’s support ratings to all-time lows.
Cover-up and rise-up
Suga was an architect of the Cabinet Personnel Bureau in 2014 that gave the administration unprecedented, centralized control of over 600 top bureaucratic appointments. In other words, if you are an elite government worker and you want to rise to the top, you have to do what pleases the prime minister, or risk being sidelined. It created an atmosphere which encouraged any ambitious agency employee to make decisions with an eye to pleasing the administration, over serving the public interests.
Critics have pointed out that this has created the problem of “sontaku” (presumptive actions), in which officials not only make policy to please politicians rather than what might be effective, but also destroy and alter public documents on their own to cover up for their bosses. Under Suga’s watch, officials who participate in cover-ups are rewarded and promoted. In a recent TV appearance, he defended his stance saying, “Any government worker who does not agree [with me] will be moved somewhere else.”
Dissent is not tolerated. A top-ranking bureaucrat who protested that Suga’s “hometown tax” program unfairly benefited the wealthy was sidelined for his candor and taken off the so-called elite course.
In 2017, when Kihei Maekawa, a former bureaucrat in the Ministry of Education, came forward with evidence that confirmed Abe’s involvement in a school scandal, Suga allegedly orchestrated a smear campaign to discredit him. The nation’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, which is to the Abe administration what Fox News is to the Trump administration, gleefully helped.
Whether you like him or hate him, Suga is adept at getting the media to do what he wants.
Many expect Suga to be more or less a carbon copy of Prime Minister Abe when he takes office. At the press conference on September 2, in which he announced he would be running for president of the LDP, he repeatedly said he would continue Abe-era policies, while also making it clear that he would not open the lid on Abe’s corruption scandals. The press was so frustrated with his evasive answers and pledges to follow Abe’s footsteps that a reporter from the Mainichi Newspaper jabbed him with the following question:
I feel like I’m listening to the statements of Prime Minister Abe. As ‘Prime Minister Suga’ are you simply aiming to be an extension of the Abe regime? If there’s any difference, what’s different and how will it be different?
Suga was momentarily dumbfounded and blurted out that he would shake up the bureaucracy.
He is even expected to continue Abe’s disastrous economic policies with small variations. This time it will be called “Suganomics.”