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Explainer: Who is Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s new PM?

From humble beginnings to the country's top job

Yoshihide Suga will officially become Japan’s new Prime Minister this afternoon at today’s parliamentary election after being elected leader of the ruling party on Monday. Suga will be the first new prime minister of the Reiwa era succeeding Shinzo Abe who surprisingly resigned in late August.

Who is Yoshihide Suga?

Suga first came to international prominence in April last year when he announced the name of the new Japanese imperial era, which coincides with each rule of the emperor. He announced that the era during Empreror Naruhito’s reign would be called “Reiwa” meaning “beautiful harmony” and Suga, who at the time was Chief Cabinet Secretary, was affectionately nicknamed “Uncle Reiwa”.

Suga was born in 1948 to a family of strawberry farmers in the northern prefecture of Akita.

“My parents were hard workers. They returned home from fields around the time I got up. People in the countryside are all like that,” he told The Nikkei.

“The countryside taught me perseverance before I knew it.”

He then moved to Tokyo after high school to study law and worked at a cardboard factory while at university to pay his tuition. After developing an interest in politics during his time at Hosei University, he was helped by the university’s career centre in connecting with the head of the alumni association. This connection helped him gain a job as secretary to Hikosaburo Okonogi, a member of the lower house.

He resigned in 1986 to pursue his own political career when he ran a successful campaign for a seat in the municipal assembly of Yokohama. Suga has been credited for pioneering the act of campaign speeches on the street, otherwise known as tsujidachi, which is now commonplace in Japan.

After two terms in the municipal assembly, he was elected to Japan’s lower house in 1996 where he has served since. He has been re-elected seven times and held the title of Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications from September 2006 to August 2007.

Suga is known to be fit, exercising everyday including doing two hundred sit-ups, and also loving sweets.

“I can’t drink alcohol. I have a sweet tooth instead,” he said.

“I sometimes eat them and later say, ‘Darn, I did it again!'”

He supported Shinzo Abe when Abe ran for the party leadership again in 2012. Abe was elected as the party leader and then the Prime Minister after the general election that year. Suga gained the position of Chief Cabinet Secretary from 2012 till Monday when he became of leader of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. He won 377 delegates votes out of 535, beating former foreign affairs minister Fumio Kishida and former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba.

Why did Shinzo Abe resign?

Abe announcing his resignation

Shinzo Abe resigned on August 28 as the longest serving prime minister in Japan’s history because he was unable to carry out his duty due to a relapse of his chronic ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease.

This is the second time Abe has had to resign as prime minister due to his health. His first term only lasted one year due to the disease but he said he has been managing his condition with the drug Asacol.

“Over the last almost eight years I have kept my chronic illness fully under control and have had no trouble devoting all of my energy every day, day after day, to the job of prime minister,” Abe said.

Abe’s ulcerative colitis relapsed in June and he started to physically weaken from the middle of July.

“It would be unacceptable if I were to err in an important political decision or fail to achieve results because of the pain,” Abe said.

“I have made the determination that, as I have become unable to confidently live up to the mandate from the people, I should not continue in the position of prime minister.”

What is expected from Suga?

It is expected that Suga will continue most of Abe’s policies to the next election. He will have to tackle the pandemic and Japan’s recovery out of the recession as the country recorded its biggest economic slump on record last month. He is looking to expand testing and source vaccine doses for Japan by the middle of next year.

Suga is also looking to raise the minimum wage, promote agricultural reforms and boost tourism. He will also overlook the country’s hosting of the delayed summer Olympics next year.

Photo: Photo by the Prime Minister’s Office of Japan available here and used under a Creative Commons Attribution. The image has not been modified.

Photo by the Prime Minister’s Office of Japan available here and used under a Creative Commons Attribution. The image has not been modified.

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