It’s often said that the Japanese aren’t fond of outsiders. The otherwise underwhelming sight of me walking out of a hotel in Shizuoka last year was enough to make the faces of a group of young kids light up, shouting “gaijin” – meaning foreigner – to each other in excitement. Foreign residents, even in the multicultural metropolis of Tokyo, often talk of having drunk groups of salarymen shouting English words at them before bursting into laughter. It’s a reputation that the overwhelmingly welcoming country might not deserve, but one it has a hard time shaking off.
But the reluctance to accept outsiders doesn’t just apply to foreigners. It has seeped into Japanese domestic politics as well. Despite being one of the most democratic nations in the world, its political parties and power structures are, by and large, dominated by a small number of family dynasties. The country’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, himself from a line of politicians stretching back decades, embodied Japan’s desire for a stable status quo for almost a decade. Struggling in the polls and facing criticism over the handling of coronavirus, we predicted his departure in Reaction last month. In the end, his poor health provided the occasion for his resignation.
On the surface, his successor as Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, is another man from inside the tent. After serving as Abe’s faithful Cabinet Secretary for the entirety of his time in office, Suga put himself forward in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership election promising continuity and stability. It is clear he knew his audience, ending up securing more than 70 per cent of the vote. His competitors, a former Foreign Minister and a former Defence Minister, were both from established political families, but years working at the heart of government had given Suga more in the way of capital and connections.
Suga himself is the closest thing Japanese politics has to an outsider. In the wake of Second World War, which had left the country almost destitute, he was born into a family of rural strawberry farmers. The swift and unprecedented economic recovery that followed in the decades after the war gave men of his generation an unprecedented shot at a salaried job in one of a wave of new companies. But, initially at least, Suga was left out.
While his future boss, Shinzo Abe, the son of a member of the House of Representatives, spent the 1970s studying at an elite Tokyo private school and preparing for university admissions, Suga had moved to the same city. His life was very different, working in a cardboard box factory to put himself through night school. After graduating he began a slow climb to the top, earning a seat at the table along with the sons of wealthy and established politicians. What he lacked, however, was their orthodoxy – becoming among the first candidates to simply stand outside a busy commuter station and give speeches directly to his constituents.
Now it is Suga’s turn to sit at the head of that table. But the country he is inheriting is one on the brink. Under Abe, the ruling party’s popularity faced criticism over cronyism and incompetence. For years, the economy has defied traditional rules, running a substantial deficit and amassing colossal debts, seemingly without end. But while the country’s public health strategies have been broadly effective in containing the spread of coronavirus, the economy, the world’s third largest, has struggled to adapt to the changes.
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Japan’s service sector is colossal. It only takes a trip to one of Japan’s 50,000 immaculate convenience stores, selling everything from fresh sushi to umbrellas, hangover cures and disposable underwear, to begin to understand how many supply chains are driven by the country’s urban, time-poor professional culture. But now that culture is changing. The byzantine system of old-fashioned companies, where employees apologise to each other for leaving their desks first, has been forced to adapt, with so-called salarymen and women working from home.
The resulting drop in retail spending, which had resisted predictions in previous economic crises, has plunged the country into recession. With rising unemployment and declining property values across the country, confidence in Japan’s markets among international and domestic investors is at an all-time low. For a country with such substantial debts and an aging population, with enormous pension liabilities, this is potentially a disaster.
Suga’s outsider status, however, gives him a unique insight into how catastrophic another “lost decade” would be for Japan. While years of stagnation and limited opportunities may have meant less in a material sense for well-heeled political families in cities like Tokyo and Osaka, for farming communities like the one in which Suga grew up, another period of prolonged depression is an existential threat. Without growth in Japan’s regions, there will be a continuation of the trend that has seen young people moving to find work in cities, leaving only an aging generation behind.
So far, there have been signs that Suga is preparing to make a substantial departure from the orthodoxy of “Abenomics”, the economic policies that defined his predecessor’s time in office. In a speech earlier this month, the incoming Prime Minister declared regulatory reform to be his main agenda, as well as digitalisation and modernisation. Any such shift away from Japan’s tried-and-tested economic approach would usually trigger fierce resistance from within Suga’s own party. But with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party struggling to recover in the polls ahead of crucial elections, it appears that the country’s legislators might be prepared to risk upsetting the established balance.
It seems that Suga’s willingness to disrupt the status quo isn’t limited to domestic politics alone. At an unprecedentedly frank speech to the United Nations Security Council over the weekend, the new Prime Minister called for reforms to keep the organisation “neutral and fair.” It’s a signal that will set in motion speculation that Japan’s role as a peace-maker and stalwart ally of the United States in international bodies might be up for review. Even more surprisingly, Suga committed to meeting with North Korean counterparts, without conditions or caveats.
In taking on the status quo at home and abroad, Suga is challenging the very idea of Japan that has prevailed since the end of the Second World War. He might defy many of the archetypes of a traditional Japanese politician, but it remains to be seen whether a new approach can help his party, and his country, defy those predictions of decline.