Why Suga may be just the prime minister Japan needs
With the departure of Shinzo Abe from the leadership of Japan and the selection by the ruling Liberal Democrat party of Yoshihide Suga as Japan’s new prime minister, the story of Japan pauses again.
Suga has been Abe’s cabinet secretary for many years, so on the face of it one might expect a continuation of the policies that Abe established. Yet, there is space for considerable uncertainty.
Japan faces a difficult and very uncertain future struggling with short term problems inherent in Japanese culture and long term forces that are now upon her. The short term forces are a stagnant economy, the uncertainly of Japan’s key ally, the United States; and the growing power of China.
The long term problems are its ageing population, an education system that discourages creativity, and dependence on the US for national security.
Abe and Suga could hardly be more different. Abe came from an elite Japanese political family, attended elite schools, went to graduate school at the University of Southern California, and began his career working at a large important Japanese steel company. Abe’s maternal grandfather (Nobusake Kishi) directed much of the economy in Korea and China before and during WWII; he was designated as a Class A war criminal by the allies.
Somehow, he convinced the American authorities that he was very anti-communist so was excused and went on to be prime minister of Japan (1957-1960). He signed the revised mutual security treaty with the United States that has been the source of Japan’s security while giving the US very controversial rights to bases.
There has not been much love for Abe with South Korea or China. Abe was a proponent of lifting the restrictions in the Japanese Constitution [Clause 9] against the use of Japan’s military, allowing them to do more than defend Japan. Abe was always insistent that the Korean, Filipino, and Chinese women that were kept to provide sex for Japanese soldiers (the comfort women) were prostitutes (participated voluntarily and received benefits) and not gang rape victims.
Abe was a Japanese nationalist and determined to defend to a considerable extent Japanese behaviour in World War II.
The Nationalist defense of the war has three parts: (1) As for the colonial aspects of Japan in China, this was voluntary on the part of the Chinese and in any event all the Western countries had colonies. (2) The second part is that the United States, the Dutch, and the British cut Japan off from the raw materials, particularly oil, needed for the Japanese economy and this was a legitimate cause for war. (3) Third, the bad behaviour of the Japanese soldiers during the war is exaggerated, and what happened was what happens in war.
In any event look at the Americans, who fire-bombed Japanese cities, used their submarines to blockade Japan and starve the Japanese people, dropped two atomic bombs on Japanese cities, and locked up the Americans of Japanese descent in America.
How much of this Abe believed we do not know. But such attitudes are not uncommon among Japanese nationalists. Nationalism really means “my country right or wrong.”
From the strawberry farm
Suga in contrast is not from an elite family; on the contrary, his parents had a strawberry farm and were of modest means.
Suga came to Tokyo and got a job, eventually going to law school where he paid the tuition from the earnings of his day job in a cardboard factory.
He got into politics and worked very hard to get elected to parliament; beginning his political career doing low level jobs for other Japanese politicians. What he has achieved is on the basis of hard work and self-development, with no one opening doors to elite universities or entrances to the higher levels of Japanese political life.
Suga worked diligently for Abe during the last eight years. How much independent power Suga has within his political party remains uncertain. To establish a position independent of Abe and assert his position as leader, Suga will have to call an election and lead the Liberal Democrats to a victory at the polls.
Japan’s main short term problem is trying to establish a reasonable level of economic growth overcoming the stagnation of the past 20 years. Abe had a clear program for achieving greater economic growth, but it made little progress.
On one level, the plan was obvious: (1) An expansionary monetary program to drive up the inflation rate; this was partially successful but achieved limited results. (2) An expansionary fiscal policy that was not achieved as the conservative Japanese bureaucracy pushed through significant tax increases, leading to a more restrictive fiscal policy than was needed. (3) Structural changes in the economy to promote growth; on this little was achieved.
Abe wanted to deal with the shrinking labour force by increasing the female participation rate that was really low compared to the Western countries. (I have never understood what Japanese women were doing as they had a very low birth rate so had small families to raise and were not working in the formal labour force. I always thought that they were working, but in such a way as to not be counted.)
Abe’s economic politics never achieved his goals. He well understood that to strengthen Japan’s posture in the world and gain independence from the United States, he had to achieve a much improved economy. This is the crucial condition of being powerful.
Military power comes out of a strong economy: Something that the Chinese understand very well.
Japan faces a very serious problem with the rising power of China. The Chinese have a deep distaste for Japan, and the cruelty of WWII is very much on the minds of the Chinese people.
The Japanese economy is tightly linked to the Chinese, and the links are not easily shifted. Of course, Japanese companies are looking for places to go, such as Bangladesh, but this is all very slow progress. Production costs in South and Southeast Asia are still higher than in China; most importantly, the factories are in China and are working well. Shifting factories takes years to achieve efficiencies.
Without nuclear weapons and a limited navy and air force, without real battle experience, the military capabilities of the Japanese are very uncertain. Abe understood that Japan had to stand on its own feet and not depend on the United States.
To achieve that was a long undertaking based on a strong Japanese economy slowly reducing its links with China, building a much stronger military establishment, and finally, when the Nationalists had sufficient support, producing nuclear weapons. (The Japanese can produce nuclear weapons very quickly once they decide to do so.)
Abe retires with his dreams unfulfilled. The combination of the limited success of Abenomics and the pandemic made him realize his dreams were lost. He and his grandfather Kishi had much the same vision for Japan. Both failed to achieve Japan’s independence.
What does Suga believe?
Suga is no Nationalist, and focuses much more on the economy. He is what we need more of -- a practical politician who actually wants to take modest steps that will improve the welfare of his people.
No grand strategies for Suga. Abe may be the Japanese JFK or Trump, but Suga is a Truman or LBJ. Of course, JFK and Trump came from rich families and had life handed to them; neither worked very hard, both were failures as president. LBJ and Truman came from not very well off families, and worked hard for everything they achieved. They are two of America’s greatest post-World War II presidents.
Prime Minister Suga may be just what Japan needs.
Forrest Cookson is an economist who has served as the first president of AmCham and has been a consultant for the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.