Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the media’s role in helping Yoshihide Suga attain the premiership. As implied in the column, the press didn’t actively boost Suga but rather stood aside and just let the Liberal Democratic Party propaganda machine do its thing. Their laissez faire attitude sprung from both familiarity with Suga and a feeling of intimidation cultivated over his long stint as Shinzo Abe’s spokesperson, and from all indications that style of spin will continue unchanged during Suga’s own term as prime minister. What will be interesting—not to mention frustrating—is Suga’s penchant for reticence, which he developed quickly as chief cabinet secretary. When he first assumed the post he reportedly was more sincere in trying to answer reporters’ questions, but then found he wasn’t cut out for the kind of spontaneous expansiveness that is necessary for a public figure who is asked to explain policy and other niceties of government. As with many Japanese politicians (and journalists, for that matter), he is lost without a script, and soon succumbed to this reality by becoming tight-lipped and pugnacious. During a discussion of the matter on the web program Democracy Times, several reporters related Suga’s favorite two rejoinders during press conferences: “I don’t have to answer your question” and “I already talked about that.” Since these interactions mostly took place out of the public’s sight, they didn’t cause problems and Suga got away with them. It remains to be seen if he can maintain such behavior out in the open as prime minister.
It seems as if he at least is going to try. He avoided debating Shigeru Ishiba, a skilled talker, during the campaign for LDP president because he knew he would look bad in comparison. Reportedly, NHK was quite angry when he pulled out of a TV debate at the last minute, saying that he had to be on standby because of an approaching typhoon. Reporters invariably describe him as even more authoritarian than Abe is, a function of his discomfort with delegating responsibilities. He doesn’t have much of an imagination and has trouble thinking of the big picture in terms of policy, but once the party reaches some kind of conclusion about a matter he knows exactly how to make things work in their favor. That’s why he’s cultivated the media so diligently over the past 8 years and why he’s so shameless in bending the bureaucracy to his will. (He’s set up a system in which he can unilaterally have a civil servant transferred out of a powerful post if he does something to displease Suga) Shigeaki Koga, the former METI official who is now a full-time government critic, has said that it was Suga who got him let go from his regular pundit position at TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station.” Supposedly, he also was instrumental in getting Hiroko Kuniya, the long-time host of NHK’s popular news show “Closeup Gendai,” removed after she asked him questions on air that he wasn’t prepared for. That, of course, is the thing that Suga hates the most, and he will continue avoiding any confrontations that require him to speak off the top of his head. That may sound difficult to pull off, but Abe successfully created an environment where the prime minister was shielded from potentially embarrassing encounters, unlike Junichiro Koizumi who, as prime minister, was happy to chat with reporters and show off his limited but nevertheless pointed erudition. Now that Suga has both the bureaucracy and the media in his pocket, he knows he doesn’t have to answer directly to anyone, which is why he was so bold in his rejection of those 6 scholars who were nominated to the Science Council of Japan because they opposed certain government policies in the past. It’s also why he can appoint a journalist who has been critical of the administration to his inner circle. Keep your friends close but your (potential) enemies even closer.