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How the son of strawberry pickers became Japan’s most likely choice for next prime minister

September 3, 2020, 11:21 AM UTC

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Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s 71-year-old chief cabinet secretary, begins each day by reading all Japan’s major newspapers, doing 100 sit-ups, then embarking on a brisk 40-minute walk. At the end of his workday, Suga returns to his quarters in a modest dormitory for legislators and, before turning in, does 100 more sit-ups.

The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan’s leading business daily, detailed Suga’s daily routine in a profile published last year. Such habits, the paper concluded, reflect a “dedicated and determined character” that has helped propel Suga, the son of strawberry pickers from the frozen fields of Japan’s northern Akita prefecture, to the pinnacle of political power.

For nearly eight years, Suga has served as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s most trusted consigliere. In Japan’s political system, chief cabinet secretary is a position that combines formidable powers. As the New York Times noted recently, if translated into American terms, the office is “roughly equivalent to a White House press secretary, chief of staff and liaison with Congress all rolled into one.”

Suga, by all accounts, has wielded that authority with remarkable skill. “Suga is a real power politician,” Tokyo-based economist Jesper Koll told me. “Everybody’s afraid of him. He’s the guy who gets things done.”

This week Suga, to the surprise of many Japan analysts, emerged as the front-runner in the race to replace Abe, who announced on Aug. 28 that he will step down to undergo treatment for an incurable intestinal ailment.

Suga often has been mentioned as one of many possible successors to Abe, especially in recent months as the prime minister scaled back public appearances and faced a series of political scandals involving friends and family.

But he was seen as an unlikely choice. The conventional wisdom, as I reported Friday, held that Abe would back former foreign minister Fumio Kishida to spite Abe’s long-standing Liberal Democratic Party nemesis, former defense and agricultural minister Shigeru Ishiba. Suga was expected to stay on as wingman.

By Tuesday it was evident the factional balance of power had shifted. Senior members of Japan’s ruling LDP moved to exclude ordinary party members from a leadership vote on Sept. 14 and allow only members of parliament and representatives from prefectural chapters to cast ballots. That left the selection of prime minister in the hands of the small coterie of senior power brokers who control the party’s largest factions.

The avuncular Ishiba may be the most popular candidate among the general public and the LDP’s rank-and-file. But the Japanese press reports that, among the faction bosses, Suga is overwhelmingly perceived as far more capable than Ishiba or Kishida of controlling the spread of the coronavirus, reviving Japan’s faltering economy, and pushing forward with the rest of Abe’s policy agenda.

Suga formally announced his candidacy on Wednesday. If anointed, Suga would be an atypical prime minister. In Japan, politics is a family affair, with parliamentary electoral machines handed down from one generation to the next. Abe is the grandson of former premier Nobusuke Kishi and the son of former foreign minister Shintaro Abe. Kishida’s father and grandfather were also members of Japan’s lower house. Ishiba’s father was a prefectural governor.

Suga lacked a famous name or political network. His parents were ordinary farmers. Akita’s winters are so harsh that he had to live in a boarding house to be able to get to high school. After high school, he moved to Tokyo and worked for two years at a cardboard factory before winning admission to Hosei University. He worked part-time to put himself through college and landed a job as secretary to a member of parliament from Yokohama, thanks to an introduction from the head of his university’s alumni association, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun reports.

Twelve years later, at age 38, he was elected to the Yokohama municipal assembly, where he served for eight years before winning a seat in national legislature’s lower house. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun profile credits him with pioneering tsuji-dachi, the now commonplace practice of making “soapbox speeches” in front of train stations to connect with morning commuters.

No less remarkable is that Suga isn’t currently affiliated with any LDP faction. In 1998, he bolted from the faction of Keizo Obuchi, a party bigwig who later became prime minister, to support a rival Suga believed more capable. Moreover, he has managed to thrive despite being a teetotaler in a political party whose leaders are famed for wheeling and dealing at extravagant late-night drinking sessions.

Suganomics” aren’t likely to differ that much from “Abenomics.” But the one area where Suga remains unproven is diplomacy. It is likely that he will continue Abe’s foreign policy agenda, which included loosening restrictions on Japan’s military and support for at least two major international initiatives—the Paris climate change agreement and the Transpacific Partnership—that have been renounced by Japan’s most important ally under President Donald Trump.

It’s also unclear whether the reserved Suga can replicate the kind of personal rapport Abe established with Trump during rounds of golf.

In this week’s Eastworld Spotlight conversation, Jesper Koll assesses Abe’s legacy as prime minister and argues that, although prime ministers from Japan’s conservative ruling party have traditionally favored Republican presidents over Democrats, whomever the LDP picks to succeed Abe would much rather deal with Joe Biden than Trump.

Next week, I will kick off the Fortune Global Tech Forum virtual discussion series with ‘The Race for a Vaccine,’ a conversation with top Chinese vaccine executives Dr. Hui Aimin, president of global R&D and chief medical officer at Fosun Pharma, and Dr. Chen Ling, chairman of Guangzhou Biomed. The discussion will take place on Sept. 10 at 9:00 p.m. Beijing time. Participation is free and you can register here.

Clay Chandler
clay.chandler@fortune.com

This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Grady McGregor. Reach him at grady.mcgregor@fortune.com

Eastworld news

A tech ban, extended

Tensions are escalating once again on the China-India border after a Chinese land mine reportedly killed an Indian soldier this week. Following the reports, the Indian government announced that it will block an additional 118 Chinese apps in India, including ones owned by Chinese tech giants Tencent, Baidu, and Ant Group. The measure adds to the 59 Chinese apps India banned earlier this year following a Sino-India border clash in June that killed dozens. New York Times

Beef with Australia

China’s relations with Australia are rapidly deteriorating. Australia confirmed this week that Cheng Lei, an Australian-national working for Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, was detained in Beijing. Some observers argue that the arrest was politically-motivated and meant to punish Australia, but China denied the allegations and said Australia has been “infected with paranoia.” The news follows Australia’s decision to launch investigations into Chinese influence at Australian universities and Australia accusing China of mishandling the pandemic. For its part, the Chinese government has placed restrictions on Australian imports like beef, barley, and wine, and the Chinese tech giant Huawei recently pulled its sponsorship of an Australian sports league. ABC News Australia

The dragon has three problems

This week, Netflix and Game of Thrones show-runners David Benioff and DB Weiss announced they will adapt the bestselling Chinese sci-fi novel, the Three-Body Problem, into a television series. To produce the show, Netflix will partner with Chinese gaming company Yoozoo, which has long owned filming rights to the novels but has spent years unsuccessfully trying to bring it to movie and TV screens in China. In June 2019, New Yorker writer Jia Yangfan profiled the book's author Liu Cixin, giving an inside look at the background and mindset of China’s most successful sci-fi writer. New Yorker

A (re)balancing act

The U.S. announced a fresh round of restrictions on Chinese diplomats in the U.S., saying Chinese representatives will need to seek approval to visit universities or meet with local U.S. government officials. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said on Tuesday that he expected to close China’s Confucius Institutes, a soft-power arm of China’s government that teaches language and cultural classes, on U.S. universities by the end of the year. China has condemned the measures, but Pompeo says the U.S. is "simply demanding reciprocity." The Guardian

Detention in Xinjiang

Buzzfeed uncovered 268 new compounds the Chinese government built in recent years to intern Uyghurs, a Muslim minority in China’s western Xinjiang province. The investigation, which was conducted through cross-referencing blanked-out spots on Chinese digital map services with satellite pictures, reveals a broader scale of China’s internment program than has been previously reported. China has reportedly detained roughly 1 million people in the region since 2016 and claims that the camps are education centers used to combat terrorism. The U.S. has argued that the internment program may be the largest human-rights violation since World War II. Buzzfeed

Tick tock on the TikTok deal

U.S. firms have until Nov. 12 to purchase TikTok, the Chinese-owned video streaming app, in order to avoid the U.S. government's ban on the app. Recent talks, however, have hit a snag over the powerful algorithm that powers TikTok's platform. Sources told the Wall Street Journal that potential TikTok buyers are wary that Beijing may block a U.S. buyer from accessing TikTok's algorithm after the Chinese government issued new restrictions on exporting artificial intelligence technologies last Friday. Prospective buyers of the app include Walmart, Microsoft, and Oracle. Wall Street Journal

 

Coronavirus by country

The Philippines has become "the land of COVID-19," a Thai newspaper declared this month. The Philippines pushed back at the label for being "insensitive" and "unhelpful," but in early August the country surpassed Indonesia for the most confirmed coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia. The country plans to open up its economy this week after lifting lockdown restrictions imposed in Manila and other major metro areas on Aug. 10. Yet even after the country's second major lockdown, the Philippines appears no closer to containing the virus; the country has reported half of its 225,000 cases in the last 30 days. Benjamin Co, an infectious disease expert in Manila, recently told the SCMP that the government's strategy in combatting the virus has been reduced to “waiting for a vaccine.” South China Morning Post

Markets and movers

Sinochem Group, Chinachem – China’s top two chemical makers confirmed on Wednesday that they are discussing plans to merge. The two companies report a combined $146 billion in annual sales, and a potential merger would create the world's largest chemical maker. Nikkei Asian Review

GSX Techedu – The U.S. Security and Exchange Commission has launched an investigation into the New York listed Chinese education tech start-up. Short sellers have accused the company of inflating its sales and creating fake users. GSX Techedu has denied the allegations. Wall Street Journal

Geely Auto – The Chinese carmaker may raise $2.9 billion in its debut on Shanghai’s STAR market. Geely, already listed in Hong Kong, will be the first automaker on STAR, which is predominantly made up of tech firms. Caixin

Samsung – A court in Seoul indicted Lee Jae-yong, Samsung vice chairman and de facto leader, along with 11 other Samsung executives on charges including stock manipulation, perjury, and illegal trading related to a 2015 merger that prosecutors claim was rife with corruption. The executives deny the charges and were not taken into custody since the court rejected the prosecution's request to issue arrest warrants. If convicted, they face jail time. CNN

Final figure

23.9%

India’s economy shrank by a staggering 23.9% in the second quarter, compared to the same period in the previous year, marking the most precipitous drop among major economic powers during the pandemic. The grim news reflects the strict lockdown that Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed during March and April, but the restrictions didn't have the public health pay-off they were supposed to. India is now recording roughly 80,000 new COVID-19 per day. For now, it appears that restarting India's economy is taking precedence over containing the virus. “We had to open up because of the economy,” a young professional in Bangalore told Fortune. But now coronavirus is "getting really bad. There’s no panic about it at all.”Fortune