Outgoing Prime Minister Suga and Japan's Liberal Democratic Party - Transcript

Opener (00.00:02)

This is the Nordic Asia Podcast. 


Satoko Naito (00.00:09)

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast.  A Collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic Region. My name is Satoko Naito I'm a docent at the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Turku in Finland. I'm very excited for today's topic which is a very timely and significant one, being the recently announced departure of Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga. And I feel even more fortunate to be joined by specialist in Japanese politics, Dr. Giulio Pugliese, and I'm sure to learn a lot from his expertise. Dr. Pugliese is a lecturer in Japanese politics and international relations at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, and a part-time professor of EU-Asia studies at the Robert Schuman Center EUI. So thank you so much for making time for us today Giulio.


Giulio Pugliese (00.01:03)

Thank you so much Satoko for having me. It's a pleasure.


Satoko Naito (00.01:07)

Thank you. So Sugas's tenure as prime minister will have lasted just about a full year since it was last September that he took over after former prime minister Abe Shinzō resigned, and Suga's announcement earlier this month to not seek re-election to lead the LDP, the Liberal Democratic Party, has been largely met with surprise I understand, but how about you? What did you make of this news?


Giulio Pugliese (00.01:34)

Well it was... the timing was surprising. But the popularity rate of Suga was already decreasing throughout the late Spring and especially Olympian summer, and it decreased along with the Covid infection rates rising in Japan to the extent that by the past few weeks if it had dipped, the popularity, to less than 30%, and when Japanese prime minister's popularity dips to the 20% range they are in very perilous waters, because they should expect then long knives from within the ruling party, from within the Liberal Democratic Party. And of course it didn't bode well for Suga that he was aiming at winning the LDP presidential elections with such a low popularity rate. He would have gotten serious challengers rising up, mounting a challenge against Suga. Not just Kishida, who was the one who presented himself earlier on, but also some of the names that we see lining up right now, and so in a sense it was in the making and there is another important fact that we need to consider here. Following the LDP presidential elections, the prime minister will have to dissolve the lower house and call general elections, because their mandate will naturally expire in autumn of this year, so the general elections needed a popular face. And even if Suga had been reelected as LDP president, he would have certainly led the LDP in very dangerous waters at the general elections, losing seats, and this was of course unacceptable to powerful LDP power brokers, including Abe Shinzō, who essentially backed, if a bit half halfheartedly you could say, but essentially Abe Shinzō backed Suga as his successor in 2020.


Satoko Naito (00.03:54)

Of course, the LDP wants to hang on to as many seats as possible, but from what I understand historically they have been in power basically ever since the 50s almost uninterrupted, and I know that often on of course their popularity waxes and wanes, but there doesn't seem to be a sense that there are really any true potentials among the opposition parties. But am I wrong in that? Would they have been in danger of losing a leadership position within the government?


Giulio Pugliese (00.04:28)

They would have certainly lost many seats if Suga had stayed in power precisely because of the fact that he was understood as unpalatable and absolutely detached from the needs of the people. So rightly or wrongly, Japanese public opinion imbued to Suga the spike of Covid cases and Japanese public opinion has also been disaffected by Suga's decision to push forward on the Olympic Games in 2021. And so it is natural for then, that dissent to translate at the very least if not in a higher abstention rate, in a protest vote. And who would you vote in the event of a protest vote against such an unpopular figure? You would vote the opposition. And the opposition parties would capitalize on that protest. So it was imperative then for the LDP to find a new face to, start afresh so to speak, facing then the general election of the end of this. This being said, I agree with you that the LDP has clang on power since its establishment in 1955, with brief parenthesis then in the early 1990s. But since the corruption and stagnation that resulted from the burst of the Japanese bubble in the late 80s and early 90s, the LDP had to reinvent itself and more importantly, it had to also govern in coalition with the New Kōmeitō, the Kōmeitō. And we tend to forget that, you know, that the Kōmeitō has been essentially, since the mid-1990s a stronger basin. It has been a government ruling party along with the LDP, even if in a junior position, but it has also... brings along, you could say a relatively constant basin of votes because as we know Kōmeitō voters often hail from Sōka Gakkai, this Buddhist religious organization, and that allows a degree of stable number of MPs being voted into the Japanese Diet. The other thing is of course that the LDP traditionally is a container for a conservative political class that ranges from ultra-nationalists such as Takaichi Sanae, or you could say Abe Shinzō who is, who should be considered the Prince of Nationalist, to moderates and you could say liberal voices such as Kōno Tarō and his father. So it is a party that contains a wide degree of factions that can then refurbish and re-brand the party when certain factions are more powerful than others to then appeal to the general public and to co-opt at the same time some of the propositions and policies proposed by the opposition. That's how LDP dominated political scene has been made possible because it is a party that has been able to transform itself as we can see possibly also from what is happening at the moment. To conclude, the opposition, of course, is in tatters, is split and it's not united. You could say that it's even more multi-faced than the LDP, and its made up of a number of very different political parties, and now some of them are considering of course joining hands with the Japanese Communist Party, but again, if you consider that on the opposition's side there are conservatives in favor of say amending the Constitution, and on the opposite spectrum the Japanese Communist Party, you understand of course that it is going to be very hard also to govern even if they go to power, not least to also convince Japanese public opinion that they have a coherent manifesto that they can insist upon. But losing lots of seats creates malcontent of course within the party, and make no mistake. If Suga had not resigned and lost, and the LDP had lost seats with his face, then it would have been only natural for the LDP to vote for a new president. And this would mean that Abe's legacy and Suga's legacy would have been in jeopardy. And So to avoid that Abe, together with Asō as well, decided to exert pressure on Suga and say: "Okay you have to resign. We need to back a new candidate, somebody who is not going to of course undo our legacy, because Suga has been Abe's torchbearer, and prepare for the general elections at the same time. So you see the power games are not just vis-a-vis public opinion, but they are also power games within the LDP, to keep up balance of power that favors certain factions or certain legacies vis-a-vis others.


Satoko Naito (00.10:21)

Right I want to get back to the big behind-the-scenes power players, Abe Shinzō of course being the most prominent one, but can you first talk about the potential successors?


Giulio Pugliese (00.10:32)

So, to add something to... something I had forgotten, it should be stressed and mentioned the fact that Suga is of course a technocrat, meaning that he was the to go guy, handling bureaucratic appointments and handling the bureaucratic machine under the Abe government he was Abe's Chief Cabinet Secretary throughout Abe's long tenure. And Suga of course is a very, from my understanding at least, this is my opinion, is a very poor communicator and very uncharismatic and this also certainly further informed the decison to do without him, and also the fact that he was very unpopular. The power players like rising up to the presidential race are Kōno Tarō, the heir to a political dynasty, his father was a LDP power broker, former Chief Cabinet Secretary and former Minister of Foreign Affairs. And then we have Kishida Fumio, who used to be Minister of Foreign Affairs and under the Abe government, like Kōno, in a later stage, and who is perceived as more dovish on foreign policy relative to Abe. And then we see lining up Takaichi Sanae who has also been a minister in Abe's government, and Takaichi Sanae is an ultra-nationalist, with distinctive views you could say on Japan and Japan's uniqueness and of course very hawkish attitude towards Japan's security threats, but also very self-condoning attitude towards the brutal legacy of Japanese Empire, so when Abe would visit Pearl Harbor and meet Obama there, Takaichi Sanae would shortly visit the Yasukuni Shrine which is this contentious, controversial Shinto Shrine in the center of Tokyo, beautiful place if you ask me with the  cherry blossom trees, it's worth a visit, but where all the war dead who died for the emperor and the making of modern Japan including World Wars are enshrined. And this includes the war criminals, notoriously and infamously also the class A war criminals that were secretly enshrined in 1978. And so this.. of course visits by high profile cabinet members, not to mention the Prime Minister, are always controversial, are always problematic in Japan's neighboring countries, especially South Korea and China. This is the lineup of the main contenders: Kōno Tarō, Kishida Fumio and Takaichi Sanae. And it's going to be a very interesting LDP presidential election and the main contenders really are Kōno Tarō and Kishida Fumio. There is also another candidate called Noda Seiko, but I think that for the purpose of brevity let's keep it simple. And I think... My money is on Kōno Tarō, but he faces a challenger in Kishida Fumio, and there's a lot of factional horse trading and political considerations as well to take into consideration together with popularity rates.


Satoko Naito (00.14:17)

Right. You mentioned Takaichi Sanae.


Giulio Pugliese (00.14:21)



Satoko Naito (00.14:22)

And I understand, I think you mentioned, so she has prime minister Abe's support, is that right?


Giulio Pugliese (00.14:28)

Yes. So this is an interesting kind of support, I would call it tactical support. Abe knows that Takaichi is not going to become the next LDP president.


Satoko Naito (00.14:39)

I see.


Giulio Pugliese (00.14:40)

If you ask me, she is nuts. Abe at least is pragmatic. He can be, you know, a wolf in sheep's clothes, as they say, but Takaichi is larger than life, and she is famous for blunders, including lapsus linguae and so it is high time that Japan gets a female prime minister but I hope that Takaichi won't tarnish really that opportunity for gender equality because then it will set a negative first example, and I think that popularity rate is relatively low and she's not widely supported of course within the LDP, because she's been a fringe candidate, and so, what Abe has done is that he has supported her, but he is supporting her as a means to convey a message, that he will support and his faction which is the largest in the LDP. should support and should put its political weight on a candidate that does not undo Abe's political legacy. And so this is part of horse-trading. Abe's support of Takaichi is possibly going to be negotiable as long as, Kishida for instance, changes his attitude in favor of greater continuity with Abe's and Suga's policy goals and so this is why Kishida reinged in his earlier dovish comments vis-a-vis, say for instance, China or Japan's relations with its Asian neighbors to emphasize the importance of the security challenges that Taiwan faces and this is in continuity with Abe and Suga and his predecessors. And he has highlighted of course the challenge that China poses to Taiwanese and Japanese security, and at the same time he has also called for greater defense spending. Kishida has also famously called for resumption of expansive fiscal measures and so this again falls very much in line with Abenomics. So you see, Kishida is falling in line with Abe's legacy to secure the support from within the LDP, of Abe, and the likes of the Abe faction and from the ranks of other important conservative factions. It is going to is going to be very interesting to see how power balance changes, not least because there is a new type of challenge within the LDP that is surfacing, and that is that a new generation of LDP lawmakers, let's call them the Young Turks, they are sick and tired of power ending in the hands of the usual suspects, of the usual old LDP power brokers. And so there has been an informal network of LDP lawmakers at their first, second, third mandates, so relatively young, who are coalescing to back Kōno Tarō in all likelihood, because Kōno is relatively young as well, he is 58, and Kōno has traditionally has been a liberal, so he was anti-nuclear, he has been studying in United States of America, at Georgetown University, so his English is actually quite fluent. His father was also relatively liberal with regards to Japan’s legacy of empire. The Kōno statement of 1993 was done at the initiation of the chief cabinet secretary Kōno Yōhei, to atone for Japan’s handling of the so-called Comfort Women, and it was negotiated secretly of course with South Korea so that the language would please also South Korean decision-makers. And Kōno was also in favor, famously, for an imperial succession that allowed for a female successor. And so you see, it gets very very distant from the Abe line. And of course Kōno will also change his views, and has kept quiet for instance on the reactivation on lots of specific nuclear reactors in Japan. And he will have to make a degree of compromises on his beliefs and views. But Abe and the conservative camp view him with suspect, because he might undo some of the legacies of the Abe era.


Satoko Naito (00.19:40)

But Kōno may benefit the LDP in the near future during the general elections.


Giulio Pugliese (00.19:44)

Yes, because he's also the most popular and a savvy social media user. Well him and of course his Spin Doctors. And yeah, I would say that he is the most charismatic of all the candidates lining up. And I had the good fortune of hearing him giving a presentation when I was a PhD student in Cambridge. There was actually only four of us because he was an MP back then, about 10 years ago and his English is really fluent. And he's very smart and very driven. I could feel the charisma first hand.


Satoko Naito (00.20:24)

I see, the key characteristic that Suga lacked.


Giulio Pugliese (00.20:28)

Absolutely. And the same applies in a sense also to Kishida. He's not very charismatic.


Satoko Naito (00.20:34)

I see. So charisma and good communication skills, these are things that will be important going forward, maybe precisely because of what happened in the last couple of years with the Covid pandemic.


Giulio Pugliese (00.20:47)

 Absolutely. And handling Japan's International agenda will also be high on the prime minister's duties.  The economic fallout from the pandemic is certainly something to keep an eye on it and that's why we hear Kishida pushing for an expansionary fiscal measures. But it remains to be seen whether Suga’s successor would be equally passionate about digitization and green technology and fighting climate change. I am of the opinion that these are international trends really, within agenda of the new green economy and the digitization these go actually hand in hand. Advanced, mature economies such as the Japanese one has unveiled measures the pretty much at the same time and of the same entity relative to the European Union, the UK and also the United States of America. So Suga has been a strong proponent in his years as Chief Cabinet Secretary for the digitization agenda and I imagine that no matter the successor, this will continue unabated. Together for the push for a new green deal or a greener economy.


Satoko Naito (00.22:07)

Right. Actually I wanted to ask you about these initiatives. Prime Minister Suga made a big deal about trying to do away with Japan's kind of famously archaic bureaucratic system with the digitization and I understood that Kōno Tarō was a big part of this as well. And I just wanted to ask that did he make any headway in these other big issues that he wanted to tackle like renewable energy and digitization.


Giulio Pugliese (00.22:36)

Well, the prime minister has been very ambitious, to the extent that the initial goals that he had set in terms of green transformation of the Japanese economy were actually further deepened during the summit that Biden had launched at the beginning of his presidency. The problem will be for Japan of course squaring the circle between a greener transition that necessarily needs to take place along with the, for instance, reactivation of its nuclear reactors. And you know this is important to remember because it's only a handful, I think still 9 or 10 nuclear reactors out of 60 that are in operation in Japan. And Japan's reliance on fossil fuels accounts for roughly 87% of energy consumption, including coal. You know, we might call it clean coal, but it is not clean! Interestingly enough Japan has also exported quote-unquote clean coal capabilities as part of its official development assistance to emerging and developing economies, China much more. But you see, the proof will be in the pudding, how much of this transformation will allow for a lighter footprint of fossil fuels in the Japanese economy. It remains to be seen, because anti-nuclear sentiment is still very strong in Japan. And to have a greener economy in the short run of course, the reactivation of nuclear reactors seems like the best option. This is my opinion and I should warn your listeners that I'm not an expert really on this matter, so take it with a grain of salt. I think that Japan’s transition to a fourth industrial revolution and to higher end technologies is continuing. This goes hand in hand with the digitization, and the new Digital Agency ministry that the Suga government has launched. It is one of the legacies that Suga can claim. Kōno has pushed for debureaucratizing and digitizing the administrative sector, which is something that Japan needed badly. If you follow Japan a bit, you know that faxes are still accepted you know, you could still contact offices by fax, sometimes it was actually asked of you to contact them by fax, and this was clearly problematic. Or another issue that you may have faced in Japan, certifying your identity not with your personal ID card but the personal seal, the so-called hanko. And so the Suga government and Kōno Tarō have tried to do without this menial paper work, with as many as 15,000 types of administrative procedures going through hanko, personal seals, and I think that this is something that this government is pushing on, to reduce them to less than a hundred administrative procedures requiring a hanko. And this is my two cents on your on your question.


Satoko Naito (00.26:05)

Well getting rid of all those, all that paperwork would be a welcome change for so many I'm sure. I know we're pushing the time limit, but I wanted to ask you, because you may not be an expert on nuclear energy but you are on not just Japanese domestic policies but international relations. And I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about what you think going forward. So whether it's a very hawkish Takaichi Sanae or a less so Kōno Tarō, do you think that there will there be any significant changes in the kind of foreign policy that Suga and before him Abe had established and I'm I'm thinking specifically towards reaffirming alliance with the US of course and then the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Can you foresee any changes whether Kōno Tarō or Takaichi takes over, or will this continue, do you think? And I suppose I shouldn't keep mentioning Takaichi since, as you said, the chances of her actually becoming prime minister are rather slim.


Giulio Pugliese (00.27:21)

Right. So these are excellent questions because they are part and parcel of Abe’s legacy. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific, for instance, is really the byproduct of prime minister Abe Shinzō’s time in government. And he was particularly keen on diplomacy and security. And so the very same diplomats and foreign policy-making executives that churned out the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which comes from Japan, it doesn’t come from the US, this should be emphasized. It was Japan that endowed that concept and gifted the US with that concept, and eventually that concept was shared by others. The foreign policy team responsible for crafting this concept was the very same team that had crafted the so-called Arc of Freedom and Prosperity with the first Abe government, and Asia-Pacific Democratic Security Diamond, the Quad, so these are exactly the same people behind Abe responsible for these initiatives, so they are really a part of Abe’s legacy.  It would be natural for a new prime minister to find a set defining policy hallmarks that would allow for his name to be registered in the annals of Japanese political history. Both on the domestic front and the international front, every prime minister would want to leave a mark. So you would expect the Free and Open Indo-Pacific would deserve less attention, or the Quad, which is this security dialogue now also at the summit level between Australia, Japan, India, and the United States of America, but what is interesting is the shared factor. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific and the Quad are essentially multinational gatherings, essentially shared by these nations and more, so the Indo-Pacific concept has traveled as far as Southeast Asia where ASEAN countries have their own outlook on the Indo-Pacific, all the way to Europe, the European Union has its own strategy of cooperation for the Indo-Pacific. And we’re going to get today, I don’t know if this podcast will be published at a later stage, but by the time it’s been published, in all likelihood the commission and the high representatives will have announced a joint communication on a new strategy for the Indo-Pacific. And so by virtue of having this concept shared with so many other countries... of course every country has its own definition, it’s a bit like happō bijin, you see it from… it’s beautiful from any direction, a Rorschach test as well. So what will happen is that the foreign policy in terms of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific will stay. It will be defined differently, depending on the prime minister. So Takaichi, you know, if you think of her name as well, Taka could be read as hawk number one. Different characters but... Takaichi could read the Free and Open Indo-Pacific in a more American way, of like containing China much more markedly. Kōno and Kishida might define Free and Open Indo-Pacific in a more moderate way. Still very suspicious of China, I would say that this is now a consensus within the LDP. But the Quad will not be scaled back, but perhaps Japan will be less assertive, and less inclined to be aligned with the United States’ position within the quad. It might be a bit more suspicious of US-China confrontation. Because, I don’t see Japan as still hedging and taking a step backwards among US-China confrontation. I see Japan as very much aligned with the US, but a new prime minister might actually scale that back a bit for fear of entrapment and taking too much for granted, the US support as well. But you might see then, overtures towards elsewhere.  You might see overtures towards South Korea.I would imagine Kōno making overtures to South Korea and try to amend a relationship that badly needs healing. Kōno was very much Japan’s man when he was foreign minister, and the government of Japan had to, well, the prime minister’s office really, enforce sanctions, if nominal, against South Korea because of the decision by South Korea to enforce a Supreme Court ruling on forced labor during the Greater East Asian War and Japan’s subjugation of Korea. Kōno was very much in line with the government of Japan, but deep inside, Kōno is a liberal and he is much more sellable to Korean public opionion because he acknowledges the brutal legacy of the Japanese empire, something that was less straight forward, let’s put it that way, with Abe and took some convincing. So I can see for instance some legacy foreign policy initiatives, between Kōno and in all likelihood a new South Korean president, because South Korea will also have presidential elections. So this is just an example of what could happen.


Satoko Naito (00.33:14)

Okay. Thank you so much. You’ve given us so much to think about. I believe the election for the president, the leader of the LDP will happen on September 29th, And we’ll see which of these names comes out on top. Because of the parliamentary system, whoever wins the LDP leadership will very most likely become the next prime minister. Thank you so much Giulio for your time today and expertise, and for sharing all these insights on the current situation in Japanese parliamentary and international politics.


Giulio Pugliese (00.33:52)

My pleasure Satoko, it’s been a delight to be here.


Satoko Naito (00.33:55)

Thank you so much. Again that was Dr. Giulio Pugliese, lecturer in Japanese politics and international relations at Oxford School of Global and Area Studies and a part time professor of EU-Asia Studies at the Roberth Schuman Center European University Institute. And to our listeners, thank you for joining the Nordic Asia Podcast, showcasing Nordic collaboration in studying Asia. Thank’s Again


Closer (00.34:22)

You have been listening to the Nordic Asia Podcast.