As the End of the Abe Era Approaches in Japan, a Succession Battle Looms

As the End of the Abe Era Approaches in Japan, a Succession Battle Looms
Newly appointed Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi speaks during a press conference at the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo, Sept. 11, 2019 (AP photo by Eugene Hoshiko).

Barring the unexpected, Shinzo Abe will become the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history this November. Speculation is already rife among Japanese commentators over who could be next in line for the top job. A major reshuffle of Abe’s Cabinet earlier this month sets the stage for what the Nikkei Asian Review calls “Japan’s post-Abe game of thrones.”

The crowded field of potential successors include Taro Kono, who was appointed defense minister after serving a two-year stint as foreign minister, and Toshimitsu Motegi, who replaced Kono at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Motegi has been close to Abe for years, and he proved his mettle as the lead negotiator for a trade agreement with the United States, which was signed at a meeting between Abe and President Donald Trump in New York on Wednesday. Both of them could be angling to succeed Abe as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP; his third and likely final term will end in September 2021.

Yoshihide Suga, who was reappointed as chief Cabinet secretary, is another top contender, though he has been circumspect about his political ambitions. His role in government is roughly analogous to an American chief of staff, with the added responsibility of holding regular press briefings, making him one of the government’s most recognizable faces. A rock-solid Abe ally, his popularity got a boost this spring, when he announced the name of Japan’s new imperial era, Reiwa. Shortly after that, he made a rare trip to the United States, the first such visit by a chief Cabinet secretary in 30 years. According to Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper, officials in Washington rolled out the red carpet for Suga only after repeated requests from their Japanese counterparts that he be granted meetings with top officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence, heightening rumors that he is being groomed to succeed Abe.

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