Yoshide Suga Set to Become Japan’s Next Prime Minister

TOKYO — There are few true surprises in Japanese politics, but the rise of Yoshihide Suga to become the next prime minister was not exactly preordained.

The son of a strawberry farmer and a schoolteacher from rural northern Japan, Mr. Suga is one of the few leading Japanese lawmakers not from an elite political family. Charisma is not the first — or even the second or third — word evoked by his public persona. At 71, he’s even older than Shinzo Abe, who suddenly announced in late August that he was resigning as prime minister because of ill health.

What Mr. Suga, the longtime chief cabinet secretary to Mr. Abe, does offer is continuity. He vowed to pick up from where Mr. Abe left off, a gesture that reassured the nation after a string of revolving-door prime ministers. And in Japan, where stability often outweighs ideology, Mr. Suga appealed to a tradition-bound political establishment that resists change.

On Monday, Mr. Suga swept an election for the leadership of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party — which has governed Japan for all but four years since World War II — assuring him the prime ministership.

There are rumors that Mr. Suga could call a snap election soon after he takes over the prime ministership. If successful, he could consolidate his popularity. If not, “maybe this is just an interim leader,” said Ken Hijino, a professor of law at Kyoto University, “and they will come up with some surprise younger, more attractive face to go into the general election.”

When he decided to pursue politics, absent family connections, he asked the career services center for an introduction to a member of Parliament.

In 1975, Mr. Suga took a job as secretary to Hikosaburo Okonogi, a member of the House of Representatives from Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city. Mr. Suga’s duties included buying cigarettes and parking cars.

He also quickly learned how to cater to a constituency. At Mr. Suga’s wedding to his wife, Mariko, in 1980, according to Mr. Mori’s biography, a supporter of Mr. Okonogi said he had bought shoes for Mr. Suga because he “quickly wore them down” going door to door to visit voters in the district.

The Sugas had three sons, but in a debate last week, Mr. Suga admitted that he was rarely home as they were growing up.

In 1987, he ran for a seat on the City Council in Yokohama, where he became known as a “shadow” Yokohama mayor. He helped develop transportation links to the port and pushed to lower waiting lists at city daycare centers.

“He has four eyes and four ears,” Koichi Fujishiro, a former chairman of the Yokohama City Council, said in a telephone interview. “He worked from morning to late at night.”

In 1996, Mr. Suga made the leap to national politics, winning a seat in the lower house of Parliament. During Mr. Abe’s first, fumbling stint as prime minister, from 2006 to 2007, Mr. Suga served as minister of internal affairs and telecommunications. Even after Mr. Abe left office following a series of scandals, Mr. Suga remained loyal.

Mr. Abe rewarded that loyalty when he came back as prime minister in 2012 and chose Mr. Suga as his chief cabinet secretary. According to Kenya Matsuda, author of “Shadow Power: Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga,” Mr. Suga urged Mr. Abe to focus on the economy rather than the nationalist agenda that had consumed his first term.

Last year, Mr. Suga took some steps to come out of the shadows. When the government officially unveiled the name of the new era marking the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito, it was Mr. Suga who dramatically revealed a calligraphic rendering of the name, Reiwa, earning him the sobriquet “Uncle Reiwa.”

Mr. Suga has also trumpeted his brainchild, a system that allows citizens to donate money to local governments in exchange for locally sourced gifts. Many small-town governments, however, have lost money by spending more on gifts like marbled Wagyu beef or shipments of fresh lobsters than they raised in donations.

On foreign policy, Mr. Suga has worked to fill holes in his portfolio. He visited Washington last year, the first chief cabinet secretary to make such a trip in three decades.

For Mr. Abe, personal diplomacy with President Trump has been crucial. If Mr. Trump wins re-election, the question, said Ms. Solis, of the Brookings Institution, “is whether Suga can work the magic, or whether that was a bromance between Trump and Abe not to be repeated again.”

Hikari Hida and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.

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