On September 3, 2021, Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide announced that he would not run in the presidential leadership race of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), scheduled on September 29. Given the LDP’s traditional dominance in Japanese politics, the internal party leadership election is a de facto race for the prime minister slot.
Former Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio had expressed his intention to run in the leadership election as early as August 26. Other possible candidates include former LDP Secretary-General Ishiba Shigeru, former Defense Minister Kono Taro, and former Internal Affairs Minister Takaichi Sanae, Of these, Kishida is the only top leader of a faction of the LDP, and he thus became the first promising contender for the leadership race.
Previously, during the Abe administration, Kishida had been regarded as the heir apparent to Abe Shinzo, but his popularity gradually weakened in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Kishida ran in the LDP’s presidential election last year, after Abe resigned, but he was only the runner-up. Instead, Suga successfully replaced Abe. Now that Suga will not run for LDP president, it is likely that Kishida could win the race this time and become the next Japanese premier.
In his book “Kishida Vision,” Kishida argues that a true leader should possess an ability and willingness to listen to voice of the people. If he wins the leadership race this month and becomes the next Japanese prime minister, Kishida has promised to listen to the voice of the people suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic, and to take bold actions to cope with the situation. Kishida first expressed his determination to run by saying, “The public feels like the LDP is not getting the message [about the coronavirus]… I’ll move ahead in thoroughly reforming party governance.” To strengthen Japan’s fight against COVID-19, which is one of the major political issues at the moment, Kishida stated that, as leader, he “would have legislation revised so state and local governments have strong authority to curb people’s movement and secure medical resources.”
Global observers may well be curious about what kind of man Kishida is and what sort of foreign and security policy he will attempt to carry out if he becomes the LDP president and the next Japanese prime minister.
Kishida was born to a political family in Shibuya Ward of Tokyo on July 29, 1957, yet his domicile is in Hiroshima, just like his father and grandfather. His father Kishida Fumitake and grandfather Kishida Masaki were both legislators of the House of Representatives. After he graduated from the School of Law of Waseda University in 1982, Kishida joined Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan Ltd. Five years later, Kishida started serving as a secretary to his father, who was a lawmaker of the lower house. In 1993, Kishida ran for a general election and won a seat in the House of Representatives for the first time.
As for cabinet posts, Kishida was appointed as parliamentary vice minister for construction in the Obuchi and Mori cabinets. In the Koizumi cabinet, he served as senior vice minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology. As his first ministerial position, Kishida assumed the role of minister of state for Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs in the Abe’s first cabinet in 2006 to 2007. Kishida was then selected as minister for space policy in the Fukuda cabinet, and served as foreign minister when Abe returned to power in 2012.
Notably, Kishida went on to become the longest-serving Japanese foreign minister, heading up Japanese diplomacy for about four years and seven months under the Abe administration. After serving as foreign minister, Kishida was selected as defense minister and later took a position of chairperson of the Policy Research Council of the LDP.
In terms of his personality and political stance, Kishida has a reputation for being “calm and honest” and is viewed as a “moderate liberal.”
As a top leader of Kochikai, one of the most influential LDP factions, Kishida’s diplomatic philosophy is consistent with the tradition of the faction. Kochikai was created by former Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato, who prioritized Japan’s economic recovery over a rearmament policy just like Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru. Ikeda, in office from 1960 to 1964, set forth the so-called “Income-Doubling Plan” and achieved miraculously rapid economic growth in post-war Japan. Kochikai has since been led by dovish leaders including former prime ministers, such as Ohira Masayoshi, Suzuki Zenko, and Miyazawa Kiichi, who cherished the Japanese Constitution, calling it the “Peace Constitution” (heiwa kenpo). In keeping with the political philosophy of Kochikai, Kishida has pledged to initiate “humane diplomacy” based on the Peace Constitution, the Japan-U.S. alliance, and the Self-Defense Forces.
Notably, it was reported in Sankei Shimbun that the Biden administration is worried about possible political instability in Japan, and would welcome the Kishida government. Kishida is a well-known figure in Washington, D.C., due to his long stint as Japanese foreign minister. He reportedly formed a strong bond with former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who continues to serve in the current Biden administration as special envoy on climate issues.
In terms of foreign policy in the Asia Pacific region, Kishida will seek to strengthen Japan-U.S. relations, and continue to promote the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), the diplomatic vision proposed by Abe and continued by Suga. Like his immediate predecessors, Kishida will uphold the FOIP strategy while counterbalancing the increasing Chinese political assertiveness and military presence in the East and South China Seas. Regarding Chinese influence over Taiwan and Hong Kong, Kishida has stated that the Taiwan Strait may be the “next major diplomatic problem” following “China’s clampdown on Hong Kong,” showing his concerns about possible diplomatic tensions between Japan and China over the Taiwan Strait. At the same time however, Kochikai has a pro-China tradition, and Kishida would look to carefully balance the Sino-Japanese relationship and the Japan-U.S. alliance.
When it comes to Japan-Russia relations, Kishida has personal diplomatic ties with Russian leaders. Indeed, when he served as foreign minister, Kishida and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, who used to decline shake hands with Kishida, drank vodka and sake together, even competing to see how much they can drink and still continue their diplomatic conversations. This is considered to be Kishida’s diplomatic strength as opposed to Suga and Kono, who reportedly cannot drink alcohol.
Importantly, Kishida, as a representative of an electoral district of Hiroshima prefecture, has a special sense of mission when it comes to abolishing nuclear weapons. Although he does not support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which he sees as infeasible, Kishida has consistently advocated for Japanese diplomacy to promote nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament within the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As foreign minister, Kishida contributed an article “Seventy Years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons” to Foreign Affairs in August 2014. In the article, Kishida mentioned that “Tokyo will call on political leaders from around the world to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to observe the reality that resulted from the bombings with their own eyes, and to promote a shared vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.”
On April 9, 2016, Kishida contributed another article, “We Can Still Achieve a World without Nuclear Weapons,” to CNN and announced that “I will host a meeting gathering G7 foreign ministers to Hiroshima for the first time in history.” He added, “As a forum that comprises both nuclear and non-nuclear states, the G7 is well-positioned to send a strong message from Hiroshima to help revitalize international momentum on this issue and relaunch the quest for a world free of nuclear weapons.” More importantly, Kishida made a important diplomatic contribution by successfully inviting President Barack Obama to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima on May 27, 2016.
Immediately after his defeat in the LDP leadership race last year, Kishida published a book titled “Kakuheiki no nai Sekai e (Toward a World without Nuclear Weapons).” In the book, Kishida described listening as a child to his grandmother’s stories about the nuclear bombing; he noted that “To me, hibakusha and deaths from nuclear bombs are very real.”
As a result, Kishida is expected to make further diplomatic contributions to achieving a “world without nuclear weapons” by making the most of his diplomatic experience as Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister.