Sun & Star Webinar: From Abe to Suga: Japan’s Embattled Prime Minister and the Legacy of His Long-Tenured Predecessor

Just six months ago, Japan experienced the resignation of the prominent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga filled this position. With the change in power amidst a pandemic, economic turmoil, and domestic scandals, questions of Japan’s future are pressing. To answer these questions, the Tower Center invited Tobias Harris to discuss his book The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan, which discusses how the trail blazed by Shinzo Abe allows us to predict Japan’s future under Suga.

Harris began with a discussion of what we can learn from the Abe era after six months under current Prime Minister Suga. First, we can now understand the undeniable impact that Abe had on domestic politics in Japan. Despite numerous scandals, a change in leadership, and COVID-19, support for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the political party of Abe and Suga, remains resolute. Through intentional policies and democratic elections, coupled with mistakes of the opposing parties, Abe essentially dissolved the political opposition during his years in office. The unparalleled support of the LDP endures under Suga and is expected to maintain this momentum. Next, Harris explained how governing is different following Abe’s leadership. He found that there is more synthesis between the executive branch and bureaucracy with bureaucrats being more attune to executive desires and sometimes even setting the direction of government.

Top officials are now handpicked and more responsive to the Prime Minister’s needs, but this could sometimes lead to pleasing the PM at the expense of Japanese citizens. Third, Harris touched upon foreign policy, which was an area of focus under Abe. Because of Abe’s enthusiasm, Japan became a leader in the region, guiding trade, infrastructure, and supply chain policies in Northeast and Southeast Asia. The provision of an alternative to China’s regional stronghold continues under Suga as he maintains focus on foreign policy towards China, the Koreas, the US, and other powers. Finally, Harris argued that despite his successes, Abe missed opportunities such as being a regional leader in climate policy. These missed opportunities could provide avenues for Suga to gain more support, but it is difficult to predict which untouched policy areas Suga will concentrate on given the current pandemic and economic situation.

After hearing about the profound effects Abe had on Japanese politics, it is hard to imagine someone who can adequately fill the role. This uncertainty prompted a question from another professor at SMU, Professor Diana Newton, who asked whether Suga could survive the next election. To this, Harris responded that it is essentially a coin toss. For continued support from the LDP, Suga will need to portray himself as a responsive and effective leader. After being handed a series of problems including the pandemic and the Tokyo Olympics, this might prove challenging for the new Prime Minister.

Harris’s discussion of the legacy of Abe shed light on the government that Suga inherited. Despite the hurdles, Suga can at least rely on the support, success, and strength of Abe’s policies to carve his path as Prime Minister of Japan. The ballots later, this year will prove whether the trail blazed by Abe was smooth enough to carry Suga to victory at the general election.

Watch the entire event below:


To learn more about SMU Tower Center events, go here.

This post was written by Saavni Desai ’23, a President’s Scholar and Tower Scholar. She is double majoring in Political Science and International Studies with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa and triple minoring in Arabic, Philosophy, and the Tower Scholars Public Policy and International Affairs minor. She also does research alongside Professor Takeuchi and is involved in Mock Trial, Indian Student Association, and the Alpha Chi Omega sorority.