TOKYO — Yoshihide Suga has charted an unlikely course to the cusp of Japan’s premiership.
While most leading Japanese lawmakers come from elite political families, Mr. Suga is the son of a strawberry farmer and a schoolteacher from the country’s rural north. He’s known more for his expressionless recitations of government policy than any flashes of charisma. 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.
Yet Mr. Suga, the longtime chief cabinet secretary to Mr. Abe, should have little trouble sliding into the job. He has 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 — all but assuring that he will become prime minister after a vote in Parliament in the coming days.
Whether he ends up a caretaker leader or stays after a general election is likely to depend on his response to Japan’s immediate economic and geopolitical challenges. But for now, in quickly locking up what had initially seemed a wide-open contest, he has demonstrated the behind-the-scenes political skills he had honed while serving Mr. Abe for nearly eight years.
His role as a shadow power in Japanese politics, however, has rendered him a bit of a cipher.
In many ways, he seems like yet another in a long line of dour Japanese politicians. The most exciting nugget to emerge in recent news reports is the revelation that Mr. Suga, a teetotaler with a sweet tooth, starts and ends each day with 100 situps. On his website he says he likes river fishing and karate.
More substantively, it has been difficult to discern Mr. Suga’s vision for Japan, or whether he could muster fresh solutions for the country’s entrenched issues.
“Generally, politicians have at least a facade of expressing ideals,” said Megumi Naoi, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, who said she would usually expect “policy statements about the ‘type of world that I want to see.’”
Despite nearly a quarter century in national politics, Mr. Suga, who serves essentially as Mr. Abe’s chief of staff and main government spokesman, “hasn’t really come out with very strong policies,” Ms. Naoi said.
Reflecting his years as Mr. Abe’s loyal adviser, Mr. Suga, who declined a request for an interview, has promised to pursue some of the departing prime minister’s most cherished goals. He is expected to continue to push for a revision of Japan’s pacifist Constitution and the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea.
He has also said he would roughly stick to Mr. Abe’s signature economic formula, known as Abenomics, combining easy monetary policy, government spending and structural reform of industries such as agriculture.
With global turbulence from the coronavirus pandemic and rising geopolitical threats in Asia, a successor who stays the course may be just what Japan needs.
“Japan is not a country with revolutionary reform taking place very often,” said Christina L. Davis, director of the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at Harvard. “Especially in times of crisis and uncertainty, being seen as a stable crisis manager could be an asset.”
Even as he epitomizes the status quo, Mr. Suga has also been a catalyst for significant change. He is credited with helping Mr. Abe push through contentious security laws that allow Japan’s military to join overseas combat missions alongside allies. Mr. Suga was also considered a strong proponent of a bill, passed two years ago, authorizing a sharp increase in the number of foreign workers permitted in Japan.
Other glimpses of his political hand have yielded concerns. Some critics say Mr. Suga was the architect behind some of Mr. Abe’s more authoritarian impulses, including his consolidation of power over Japan’s sprawling bureaucracy and the use of tactics to silence criticism in the news media.
“I think Mr. Suga is more dangerous than Mr. Abe,” Kihei Maekawa, a former vice education minister, told The Sunday Mainichi, a weekly magazine.
With Mr. Suga as prime minister, Mr. Maekawa predicted, “bureaucrats will be servants or act as a private military” under the prime minister’s office, “worse than…