US officials might have been hoping Taro Kono, Japan’s current defense minister, would be the next prime minister. But it almost certainly will be Yoshihide Suga, outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s long-serving chief cabinet secretary.
Suga is what might be called a typical Japanese politician. For such pols, the main thing is getting elected and re-elected and jockeying for power. Developing and pursuing innovative policies is somewhat lower on the priority list. National defense is usually especially low.
Prime Minister Abe was an eight-year exception. The Americans will now have to figure out how to deal with what the Japanese system offers up.
But first, why was Kono the preferred choice for the Americans? In fact, in some respects, he is the ideal prime minister.
For starters, being a Georgetown University graduate, Kono has real exposure to the outside world and the US in particular. Indeed, he seems to have gained much more from his overseas experience than is typically the case with a certain type of Japanese pol or elite official who might study in the US for a year but never really get to know any Americans.
Such an exchange student returns to Japan with the added line on his resume but having achieved little understanding of the US. There are, of course, Japanese prime ministers with even less overseas experience and scant experience even dealing with foreigners.
Kono also has a brighter personality than most Japanese politicians. He actually smiles and expresses opinions. That does matter. It allows for debate and discussion.
Better than the awkward rote exchanges of pleasantries and reciting of Foreign Ministry-drafted talking points when meeting overseas counterparts.
Kono also seems popular with the Japanese public writ large, partly because he’s seen as not the typical politician. That can be helpful for overcoming the factional opposition to getting anything done – or doing anything controversial.
Recall how then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi sometimes played to the public and leapfrogged the Liberal Democratic Party and political and bureaucratic phalanxes looking to keep him in his place.