It couldn’t be a worse time to usher in a new leader.
A global pandemic. A struggling economy. And an increasingly tense relationship between the world’s biggest superpowers, China and the US.
But in the wake of Shinzo Abe’s surprise announcement he needed to resign for his health, Japan’s ruling party is doing its best to quickly usher in a new leader who can hit the ground running.
It’s backed Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s right-hand man.
The 71-year-old won the most votes from both Liberal Democratic Party politicians and local chapters.
He is expected to continue the country’s economic and foreign policies and will almost certainly be declared prime minister in a parliamentary vote to be held later this week.
But Suga now faces an unenviable battle, which includes trying to boost the third-largest economy in the world.
What do we know about the man set to replace Abe?
Well, first off, we know Suga has a sweet tooth and is a fan of some Australian-made desserts.
He and his wife waited in line to enter Australia’s Bills restaurant in Tokyo just to eat ricotta hotcakes, according to a 2019 profile in the Nikkei newspaper.
As Abe’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Suga was the face of twice-daily government briefings and he quickly became his key lieutenant.
But Suga has had to reassure his colleagues that even though he hasn’t been foreign minister or any kind of explicitly internationally oriented position — he was heavily involved in foreign-policy decision-making during his time with Abe.
While the two don’t have significant policy differences, their upbringings were drastically different.
Abe came from a political dynasty and he brought a big vision for Japan and its place in the world, wanting to make its citizens feel proud of its country once more.
Suga, on the other hand, is far less abstract, always keeping things in concrete terms about the issues affecting everyday Japanese people.
Suga was born to a strawberry-farming family and rose in the political world from scratch.
He’s a self-made man from a humble background with a particular strength in politics, and he’s worked his way to the top.
After high school he moved from rural Japan to Tokyo, working at a carboard box factory.
While living in the port city of Yokohama, he sharpened his political skills while working for local politicians and eventually became a local council member in the late 1980s.
“He’s (Suga) shown repeatedly he’s someone who sees problems and wants to solve them,” Tobias Harris, who’s just released a biography of Abe called The Iconoclast, said.
“And over the course of his career has developed tremendous acumen in learning how you get things done in the Japanese political system.”
Mr Harris says as Chief Cabinet Secretary under Abe for all these years, Suga has been the man “whispering in Abe’s ear and reminding him to stay focused on the concrete” and to focus on “what is more important to the Japanese voter”.
“They don’t care about the constitution, they’re not that focused on foreign policy or these big affairs of state,” he said.
“They’re concerned about: Are there jobs? Are we growing? Are the public services we expect being provided? Are our pensions being delivered?”
It may in some ways explain why Suga was the most popular choice among the public to be Japan’s next prime minister.
He’s also likely to continue on with many of Abe’s policies, including Abenomics, which has had mixed results and been mostly wiped out due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Suga’s vowed to continue with Abe’s long-held ambition to make progress on the issues of Japanese abductees in North Korea.
And amid speculation he could call a snap election in October — something fuelled by the Government’s most senior ministers — Japan’s people very soon could have their say on whether they consider Suga to be simply a caretaker or a solid replacement.
Suga faces a country in crisis
While experts say Suga is mindful of what the broader Japanese public expects, he faces a difficult task ahead.
The world’s third-largest economy is at a crossroads — and Suga will have to hit the ground running.
Japan has largely escaped the worst of the health impacts of the pandemic, recording a fraction of the deaths seen in other developed countries such as the US and UK.
It’s the COVID-caused economic devastation that will be difficult to overcome, with Japan’s coronavirus-ravaged economy shrinking by 28 per cent last quarter.
Japan’s major trading partner, China, will be a fundamental part of any economic recovery — but this in itself poses another foreign policy headache.
From the business community’s perspective, Japan and China are joined at the hip, but from a military perspective Beijing continues to provoke.
Just last week, Japan’s Defence Minister Taro Kono called China a “security threat” and the country’s annual defence review accused Beijing of pushing its territorial claims amid the coronavirus pandemic.
It suspects China of spreading propaganda and disinformation as it provides medical aid to nations battling the disease.
China is “continuing to attempt to alter the status quo in the East China Sea and the South China Sea”, Japan said in the defence white paper released in July.
What will the new leader mean for Australia?
Amid the uncertainty over China, Japan will likely seek closer ties with Australia and other middle powers such as India.
We’re already starting to see it. Two weeks ago, Japan, Australia, India and the US all signed an agreement to review supply chains to try to wean themselves off such dependence on China.
Jim Schoff, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Asia Program, who used to work in the US Department of Defence on US-Japan policy development, says Japan “can’t wait for the United States to lead in this next phase”.
“And it can’t do it by itself so it has to do it with other players and other partners, so I think that’s where these relationships with Australia, India are so key,” he said.
Abe forged closer relations with Australia, with the two having shared and progressed their joint vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.
And after seven years of negotiations, the two countries struck a free trade agreement in 2014.
“Under Shinzo Abe, Japan spoke with strength and consistency,” former prime minister Tony Abbott said after Abe announced his resignation.
“He hasn’t just been the longest-serving Japanese prime minister, he has been one of the very best.
“The free trade deal epitomised his commitment to liberal values as well as his regard for Australia.”
‘Abe left big shoes on the international stage’
Along with economic and political challenges, Suga also needs to navigate the diplomatic tightrope of an increasingly assertive China and a mercurial US President.
It means Japan will continue to hedge its bets in case one or both of the two relationships hit turbulence.
We already know Suga wants a strong alliance with the US — but what isn’t clear is how that will come about.
Certainly, Abe deliberately sought to cultivate a friendship with Donald Trump. The pair exchanged gifts and were known to play a round of golf now and then.
And he was the first world leader to visit Trump after he became President.
Trump even said Abe even nominated him for a Nobel Prize over his handling of the North Korea nuclear dispute.
It revealed the depth of the personal relationship between the pair. So how much “golf diplomacy” will there be under Suga’s leadership?
And how will Suga handle an increasingly mercurial US President who’s in a fight for his electoral life?
It won’t be easy, according to Sophia University Japanese political expert Koichi Nakano.
“Mr Suga has no international experience to speak of,” Professor Nakano said.
“He is not somebody particularly charming, even in Japanese. And so for him to act diplomatically, it’s a bit hard to imagine.”
What Suga does have is a deep bench of talent who could step up on the international stage — with Japan’s Defence Minister, Taro Kono, and Foreign Minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, both speaking English.
But Mr Harris said Suga still faces questions over how Japan will be able to maintain its international presence.
“Abe travelled everywhere: He took 81 trips in less than eight years as Prime Minister — that’s a big record to try to live up to,” he said.
“For Japan to be heard, the PM has to show up and be willing to make Japan’s voice heard.
“Abe left big shoes on the international stage that Suga might struggle with.”