By Koichiro Ashikaga and Michitaka Kaiya / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersNEW YORK/WASHINGTON — Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga successfully completed his diplomatic debut in a series of meetings in the United States with important officials, including Vice President Mike Pence.
His visit was notable for the warm welcome he received from the U.S. government, and will likely further raise his profile as a potential successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“I confirmed our collaboration in working toward a speedy resolution of the abductions issue and steadily reorganizing U.S. forces [in Japan]. It was incredibly meaningful,” Suga told reporters in New York on Friday afternoon (Saturday morning in Japan).
It is unusual for a chief cabinet secretary to travel overseas because of the crisis management involved in the role; Suga himself has little experience in diplomatic affairs.
The visit was originally to attend a symposium on North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens in his capacity as the minister in charge of the issue. The event was organized by the Japanese government among others.
However, coming immediately after North Korea’s recent missile launches, his agenda was not limited to the abductions issue.
“We were able to display the closeness of the Japan-U.S. alliance in our policies against North Korea,” a source who was on the trip said.
About 40 officials accompanied Suga, including senior officials of the bureau chief level from the Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry. “The arrangements were on the level of an overseas trip by the prime minister,” a government source said.
In addition to meeting with Pence in the White House for about 40 minutes, Suga had meetings with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.
Pompeo made time for a meeting despite having just cut short his trip to Europe to deal with circumstances involving Iran.
The United States appears to regard Suga as one of the most important members of the Abe Cabinet. A U.S. official said the visit was given considerable weight.
Suga’s announcement of the new era name on April 1 sharply raised his profile among the public, with some now calling him “Reiwa ojisan” (uncle Reiwa).
Added to the widely held view that he has performed well as chief cabinet secretary, he is now seen as a prominent candidate for becoming the next prime minister.
Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and others have called Suga a “leading candidate.”
The focus on Suga, who does not belong to any of the LDP factions, is in part due to the lack of other obvious choices.
One potential candidate, LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida, is close to Abe but is seen as lacking in terms of his ability to convey his opinion.
Former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba has failed to win widespread support within the party due to such reasons that he once left the party.
The Kishida and Ishiba camps have grown increasingly wary of Suga’s moves.
Speaking about Suga on a satellite television program Thursday, Ishiba said, “Make no mistake, he’s a strong contender” for prime minister.