When shinzo abe left his office as japanese prime minister for the last time last week, he released a short video of highlights from his eight years in office. there was mr abe dressed as super mario at the closing ceremony of the rio de janeiro olympics; mr abe taking golf course selfies with donald trump; and mr abe alongside barack obama at the hiroshima peace memorial, on the 70th anniversary of the worlds first nuclear bombing.
The video was a reminder of mr abes sometimes under-appreciated talents as a politician: his lack of condescension to voters, his pleasure in the spotlight and his ability to frame an issue. leadership is a matter of policy and judgment, for sure, but it is also about vision and communication. underlying everything mr abe did was a simple message of optimism and national revival. the japanese people responded to that and it carried him through scandals and policy errors that might have brought another government down.
Mr abes successor, yoshihide suga, has vowed to continue with mr abes policies. indeed, he won the prime ministership largely because, as chief cabinet secretary for the past eight years, mr suga was best placed to lay claim to the abe legacy. it makes sense to continue with a programme that worked. but mr suga should recognise that he needs more than just policies but a message and a vision to match mr abe as well.
Mr sugas own personal story provides a start. the new prime minister is a different kind of politician. where mr abe was a princeling his father a foreign minister and his grandfather prime minister mr suga was the child of a strawberry farmer who worked his way up from the provinces. the resonance of mr sugas rise from a cardboard box factory to the premiership has contributed to his initial approval rating of 74 per cent.
But biography goes only so far. mr suga has signalled that his chief priority is administrative and structural reform. he wants to cut mobile phone bills and create a new agency for digital policy. all to the good. but japan needs more than cheap telephony to prosper, and more than digital policy to defend itself. to sustain public support, mr suga will need to link his reforms as mr abe did so successfully to the goals of escaping deflation and reviving income growth. he has a window of opportunity. as the us and europe struggle particularly with covid-19, investor interest in japan is high.
Internationally, too, mr suga needs to set out his purpose. mr abe played a constructive role in global politics, pushing free trade, rule of law and the liberal international order. all those meetings with foreign leaders were not just photo opportunities: they helped to make japans voice heard. mr suga should commit to mr abes vision of a free and open indo-pacific not just with words but with similar levels of diplomatic energy and action. his lower profile on contentious historical issues could also help mr suga to make a fresh start in relations with south korea and china.
Most importantly, mr suga needs to adapt to his new role. as chief cabinet secretary, his job was to crack heads together behind the scenes and stonewall any inconvenient questions. as prime minister, he needs to motivate an administration to follow him, while persuading the japanese public to share in his goals. it will not be an easy transition: it is hard to imagine mr suga glad-handing on the golf course, let alone dressing up as super mario. but if he can find his own voice, then one day mr suga may release a highlights reel of his own.