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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2020, file photo, Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a press conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan. Japan's new Prime Minister Suga heads to Vietnam and Indonesia on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, on his first overseas foray since taking over from his former boss Shinzo Abe last month. (Carl Court/Pool Photo via AP, File)

TOKYO -- Japan's new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, leaves today on his first overseas foray since taking over from his former boss Shinzo Abe last month, heading to Vietnam and Indonesia.

The choice to visit Southeast Asia underscores Japan's efforts to counter Chinese influence and build stronger economic and defense ties in the region, much in line with Abe's vision.

It also reflects pandemic realities. With the U.S. tied up with domestic politics ahead of the Nov. 3 election, Suga was unable to head to Washington straight away for talks with Japan's most important ally after he rose to power, replacing Abe, who resigned for health reasons.

As he emerges from Abe's shadow with promises to "work for the people," Suga is proving in some ways to be even more hard-line. That has raised hackles within Japan and carries the potential to rile neighbors who already were disgruntled by Abe's nationalist agenda.

Abe had vowed to restore Japan's waning diplomatic stature and national pride by promoting ultra-nationalistic policies such as traditional family values and amending the post-World War II pacifist constitution to allow a greater overseas military role and capability for Japan.

While Abe traveled abroad relentlessly during his nearly eight years in office, often as Japan's top salesman, Suga mostly stayed home to manage bureaucrats to push economic, security and other domestic policies.

Suga is expected to sign a bilateral defense equipment and technology transfer agreement with Vietnam as part of Tokyo's efforts to promote exports of Japanese-made military equipment. It's a signal that Suga is certain to follow Abe's footsteps in diplomacy.

Meanwhile at home, Suga, best known for his behind-the-scenes work pushing Abe's agenda as chief Cabinet secretary, has deftly used his modest background as the son of a strawberry farmer and a teacher and his low-profile, hardworking style to craft a more populist image than his predecessor.

With much of the world, including Japan, occupied with battling the coronavirus pandemic, Suga is focusing more on delivering results back home.

"What is always on my mind is to tackle what needs to be accomplished without hesitation and quickly, and start from whatever is possible ... and let the people recognize the change," Suga told reporters Friday as he marked his first month in office.

Suga has ordered his Cabinet to rush through approvals of several projects such as eliminating the requirement for Japanese-style "hanko" stamps widely used in place of signatures on business and government documents. He is forging ahead with his earlier efforts to lower cellphone rates and promote use of computers and online government and business.

Tackling Japan's low birthrate and shrinking population head-on, he favors granting insurance coverage for infertility treatments.

"So far, Prime Minister Suga is working on policies that are easy to understand and popular to many people, as his administration apparently aims to maintain high support ratings," said Ryosuke Nishida, a sociologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. "He is boldly tackling reforms one after another, and that's his strategy to make his government look as if it is achieving results."

At the same time, Suga's refusal, without explanation, to approve the appointments of six professors out of a slate of 105 to the state-funded Science Council of Japan has drawn accusations that he is trying to muzzle dissent and impinge on academic freedoms.

Many Japanese, especially academics, are wary of abuse of power given the country's history of militarist repression before and during World War II and anti-communist campaigns after the war.

Historian Masayasu Hosaka, writing in the Mainichi newspaper, described it as a "purge."

The surprise decision sent support ratings for Suga's Cabinet to just above 50% last week from well above 60% shortly after he took office.

But while Suga's own personal ideology is unknown, he followed Abe's example in making ritual donations of religious ornaments Saturday to the Yasukuni Shrine to pay respect to the war dead. China and South Korea consider the shrine, which also commemorates executed Japanese war criminals, a symbol of Japan's militaristic past.

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FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2020, file photo, Yoshihide Suga is applauded after being elected as Japan's new prime minister at parliament's lower house in Tokyo. Japan's new Prime Minister Suga heads to Vietnam and Indonesia on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, on his first overseas foray since taking over from his former boss Shinzo Abe last month. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, File)
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People gather outside the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Oct. 6, 2020, during a protest against Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's refusal, without explanation, to approve the appointments of six scholars to a government advisory body. This has drawn accusations that Suga is trying to muzzle dissent and impinge on academic freedoms. A sign, bottom right, reads "Protect academic freedoms. Appoint the six scholars." (Kyodo News via AP)
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FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2020, file photo, Yoshihide Suga arrives at the prime minister's office after being formally elected Japan's prime minister in a parliamentary vote, succeeding Shinzo Abe, in Tokyo. Japan's new Prime Minister Suga heads to Vietnam and Indonesia on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, on his first overseas foray since taking over from his former boss Shinzo Abe last month. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)
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A visitor stands near religious ornaments at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. While Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s own personal ideology is unknown, he followed his former boss Shinzo Abe's example in making ritual donations of religious ornaments Saturday to the Yasukuni Shrine to pay respect to the war dead. A sign, left, reads "Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga." (Masanori Kumagai/Kyodo News via AP)
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FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2020, file photo, Yoshihide Suga arrives at the prime minister's office after being formally elected Japan's prime minister in a parliamentary vote in Tokyo. Japan's new Prime Minister Suga heads to Vietnam and Indonesia on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, on his first overseas foray since taking over from his former boss Shinzo Abe last month. (Shinji Kita/Kyodo News via AP, File)
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FILE - In this Sept. 14, 2020, file photo, Japan's then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, receives flowers from then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga after Suga was elected as new head of Japan's ruling party at the Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) leadership election in Tokyo. Japan's new Prime Minister Suga heads to Vietnam and Indonesia on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, on his first overseas foray since taking over from his former boss Abe last month. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, Pool, File)

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