Who is Japan’s new prime minister?

Suga inherits a number major challenges. (AFP)
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Updated 17 September 2020

Who is Japan’s new prime minister?

  • Yoshihide Suga, the 71-year-old son of a farmer, was a close ally of his predecessor, Abe Shinzo
  • Though he has played a key role in Japanese politics in recent years, Suga has few close ties with foreign leaders

Yoshihide Suga secured a majority of votes in the Japanese parliament on Wednesday to become his country’s 99th prime minister.

The 71-year-old leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had long been viewed as the front runner to succeed Abe Shinzo, who has been PM since 2012. Abe announced last month that he was stepping down because of health problems related to colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease that he has been living with for some time.

Suga, who was officially elected leader of the LDP on Monday, has been Abe’s right-hand man for nearly a decade, serving as his cabinet secretary. His role became more high profile in April 2019 when he announced that the name of Japan’s new imperial era, which began the following month, would be “Reiwa,” meaning order and harmony. As a result, he earned the nickname “Uncle Reiwa” among the Japanese public.

He also helped Abe to implement “Abenomics,” a series of policies over the past eight years designed to improve the Japanese economy. He held twice-weekly press conferences and managed Japan’s complicated bureaucracy.

Suga inherits a number major challenges, including an economic crisis and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. He will also be expected to continue the work Abe has done to develop Japan’s foreign policy.

Internationally, he has few close relationships with other world leaders. He admitted during a recent press conference that it will be difficult to match his predecessor’s achievements in building personal relationships of trust with other leaders, but added that such trust-based relationships help countries to develop closer ties.

He is expected to follow Abe’s lead by adopting an objective view on foreign policy and cultivating good relations with Japan’s neighbors, including South and North Korea and China. It is thought he will also continue to strengthen Japan’s relationship with the US.

Despite a lack of relationships with Arab leaders, Suga is expected to maintain close ties with the region for a number of reasons, the most important of which is the oil imports that Japan relies on. Five Arab nations supplied about 95.2 percent of the oil imported by Japan in June, with Saudi Arabia alone shipping 22.9 million barrels, or 39.8 percent of the total.

Suga, who is the son of a strawberry farmer, is known to be pragmatic and a behind-the-scenes deal maker. He entered politics soon after graduating from Hosei University in Tokyo, when he ran for city council in Yokohama, the capital of Kanagawa prefecture. According to biographical information supplied by the LDP, the young Suga lacked any political connections or experience so he campaigned door-to-door, visiting about 300 homes a day — 30,000 in total. He is said to have worn out six pairs of shoes by election day.

Given his background, Suga has the image of a self-made man, in contrast to his predecessor, Abe, whose father was a foreign minister and so had connections to many foreign officials and leaders.

Abe and Suga became close allies over their shared views on the return of Japanese citizens who had been abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s, and the latter supported the former throughout his time as prime minister.

Suga played a key role in some major international trade achievements along the way, including with the EU, and helped Abe open up Japan’s food market to more foreign products.

His own planned policy initiatives including a restructuring of major regional banks to help relieve their burdens of debt, and a reduction of mobile phone charges.

According to Japan’s Mainichi newspaper, Suga is a workaholic. His daily routine reportedly includes a 5 a.m. wake-up call, followed by an hour catching up with the daily news and then a 40-minute walk. He also does 100 sit-ups.

He is at his office by 9 a.m. and remains there until late in the evening. He then meets politicians or academics over dinner to discuss policies and get their views.

Outside of work, he likes to take his aides out for pancakes on occasion, as he is known for having a sweet tooth.

US Embassy in Kabul warns of extremist attacks against women

Updated 18 September 2020

US Embassy in Kabul warns of extremist attacks against women

  • The “Taliban don’t have any plans to carry out any such attacks,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said
  • Peace negotiations underway in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office, are in the initial stages

KABUL, Afghanistan: The US Embassy in Afghanistan is warning that extremists groups are planning attacks against a “variety of targets” but are taking particular aim at women.
The warning issued late Thursday doesn’t specify the organizations plotting the attacks, but it comes as the Taliban and government-appointed negotiators are sitting together for the first time to try to find a peaceful end to decades of relentless war.
The “Taliban don’t have any plans to carry out any such attacks,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told The Associated Press on Friday.
Peace negotiations underway in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office, are in the initial stages with participants still hammering out what items on the agenda will be negotiated and when.
Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said at the start of negotiations last weekend that spoilers existed on both sides. He said that some among Afghanistan’s many leaders would be content to continue with the status quo rather than find a peaceful end to the war that might involve power sharing.
According to the embassy warning, “extremist organizations continue to plan attacks against a variety of targets in Afghanistan, including a heightened risk of attacks targeting female government and civilian workers, including teachers, human rights activists, office workers, and government employees.”
The embassy did not provide specifics, including how imminent is the threat.
The Taliban have been harshly criticized for their treatment of women and girls during their five-year rule when the insurgent group denied girls access to school and women to work outside their home. The Taliban rule ended in 2001 when a US-led coalition ousted the hard-line regime for its part in sheltering Al-Qaeda, which was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
One of the government-appointed peace negotiators, Fawzia Koofi, a strong, outspoken proponent of women’s rights, was shot last month in Afghanistan, but escaped serious injuries and attended the opening of negotiations last weekend. The Taliban quickly denied responsibility and Khalilzad again warned of the dangers to the process.
The United States has said that perhaps one of the most dangerous extremist groups operating in Afghanistan is the Islamic State affiliate, headquartered in the country’s east and held responsible for some of the most recent attacks. The IS affiliate has declared war on minority Shiite Muslims and has claimed credit for horrific attacks targeting them.
The United Nations as well as Afghanistan’s many international allies have stressed the need for any peace deal to protect the rights of women and minorities. Negotiations are expected to be difficult and protracted and will also include constitutional changes, disarming the tens of thousands of the Taliban as well as militias loyal to warlords, some of whom are allied with the government.
The advances for women made since 2001 have been important. Women are now members of parliament, girls have the right to education, women are in the workforce and their rights are enshrined in the constitution. Women are also seen on television, playing sports and winning science fairs.
But the gains are fragile, and their implementation has been erratic, largely unseen in rural areas where most Afghans still live.
The 2018 Women, Peace and Security Index rated Afghanistan as the second worst place in the world to be a woman, after Syria. Only 16% of the labor force are women, one of the lowest rates in the world, and half of Afghanistan’s women have had four years or less of education, according to the report, which was compiled by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo. Only around half of school-aged girls go to school, and only 19% of girls under 15 are literate, according to the UN children’s agency.
Nearly 60% of girls are married before they are 19, on average between 15 and 16 years old, to spouses selected by their parents, according to UNICEF.
Until now, parliament has been unable to ratify a bill on the protection of women.
There are also Islamic hard-liners among the politically powerful in Kabul, including Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who is the inspiration behind the Philippine terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a US-designated militant who made peace with President Ashraf Ghani’s government in 2016.