Japan's New Prime Minister

Consensus-builder Kishida’s challenge to maintain stability in Japan

17 October 2021

Japan has a new prime minister. On 29 September, Fumio Kishida won the race for the leadership of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and on 4 October he was sworn in by the Diet as the country’s 100th prime minister (64th individual). But what sort of leader will he be? And will he be able to prevent a return to Japan’s revolving door premiership of the late 2000s?

Despite hailing from the LDP’s most progressive faction, the Kochikai, Kishida chose a strategy of patient cooperation with former prime minister Shinzo Abe — the de facto leader of the LDP’s biggest and most conservative nationalist faction, the Seiwakai — to secure the top job. Kishida served as foreign minister (2012–2017) and then as chair of the LDP Policy Research Council for (2017–2020) under the Abe government. Recognizing that the centre of gravity in the LDP lay with Abe and former deputy prime minister Taro Aso, Kishida disappointed his followers and refrained from challenging Abe in the 2018 LDP leadership election with an expectation that Abe would back him in 2021.

When Abe announced that he was stepping down in August 2020 due to poor health, a year before the end of his term, it looked as if Kishida had missed his shot and that his cooperation would go unrewarded. The LDP’s faction bosses moved to install Abe’s long-serving chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, as the continuity candidate to serve out the rest of Abe’s term until September 2021.

While Suga established a new digital agency and set an ambitious target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 46 per cent from 2013 levels by 2030, his popularity plummeted over public discontent with his handling of COVID-19. This situation was compounded by the decision to go ahead with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics despite the ongoing pandemic. Younger LDP politicians began to worry about contesting the lower house election with Suga as the face of the party, and the faction bosses stepped in to persuade him to stand down.

This opened up a four-way race between Kishida, former vaccine minister Taro Kono, and Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda — both former ministers of internal affairs and communications aiming to become Japan’s first female prime minister. Kono was the favoured candidate among the general public and the LDP’s 1.1 million rank-and-file members. But his support for same-sex marriage, changing the law to allow married couples to keep separate surnames, and maternal-line emperors, and his past opposition to nuclear power clashed with the conservative family values and pro-nuclear position of LDP leadership.

Kishida’s win relied on Abe’s support. While Abe endorsed his ideological ally Takaichi for the first round, his faction gave its members a free vote and encouraged them to vote for ‘either Takaichi or Kishida’. Kishida and Takaichi also agreed to support the other in the second-round runoff.

As Bryce Wakefield explains, ‘In choosing Kishida, the factions have taken a calculated risk. Kono would likely have secured the LDP a larger win in the general election that will now be held on 31 October. Kono even ranked higher as preferred prime minister than Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) leader Yukio Edano among supporters of the CDP’. But the change of face from Suga to Kishida has boosted public confidence enough to quell any talk that the LDP might lose power.

The question now is how indebted Kishida will be to Abe and the party’s right in framing policy strategies. Kishida’s campaign and early rhetoric so far seems designed to pay homage to his liberal Kochikai roots while also embracing the positions of the Seiwakai nationalists.

On economic policy, Kishida led with a bold proposal for a 30 trillion yen (US$273 billion) stimulus package to manage COVID-19 and emphasised the need for a new form of capitalism to reduce income inequality that has worsened under Abenomics and the pandemic. Yet at the same time, Kishida also praised Abenomics for spurring growth and vowed to maintain its three arrows.

On foreign policy, as Andrew Oros explains in our lead article this week, the Kishida government has maintained continuity by keeping Toshimitsu Motegi and Nobuo Kishi on ‘in the important foreign affairs and defence portfolios’. Japan looks likely to ‘continue the path begun under former prime minister Shinzo Abe toward modestly increased defence spending, further military capability enhancements and deeper security partnerships with the United States, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and others’.

Kishida has also flagged bolstering Japan’s strike capability against North Korean missiles before launch, and his willingness to move forward with constitutional revision — policy positions at odds with the history of his own Kochikai faction but cherished objectives of Abe.

The departure of Toshihiro Nikai as LDP Secretary-General and the ‘first-time appointment of a cabinet minister for economic security’ also suggest that the Kishida government may take a hawkish approach toward China while continuing to deepen friendship with Taiwan. The big test on China policy will come next year on how Tokyo and Beijing choose to mark the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of their post-war diplomatic relations and whether Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Japan, postponed since April 2020 due to COVID-19, will materialise.

Akira Amari takes over from Nikai as LDP Secretary-General and has helped install a new Minister for Economic Security. Japan has made proactive changes in the bureaucracy to respond to a more complex external policy environment wedged between the United States and China, but thus far its new ‘economic security’ policies mainly amount to restrictions on trade and investment in the name of security. Amari’s ideas involve onshoring and subsidies. That will be a drag on productivity and competitiveness unless the new minister can redefine the economics of economic security.

Kishida will have his work cut out if he is to facilitate a delicate consensus between his own progressive faction and the conservative nationalists that dominate the LDP. His predecessor as leader of the Kochikai, Makoto Koga, has already criticised him for following Abe and Aso’s priorities. If Kishida is to put his own stamp on the prime ministership — rather than simply shift to the right to keep Abe happy or fall victim to Japan’s prime ministerial merry-go-round — the devil will be in the policymaking details of his new administration.

Article Sourced from East Asia Forum here. Written by Dr Ben Ascione.

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