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Japan’s Kishida: A Dove in Hawk’s Clothing?

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Japan’s Kishida: A Dove in Hawk’s Clothing?

The new Japanese prime minister will find it a challenge to unite his divided party while also winning the confidence of an increasingly skeptical electorate.

Japan’s Kishida: A Dove in Hawk’s Clothing?
Credit: Flickr

Kishida Fumio’s selection as Japan’s new prime minister, judged in terms of his campaign rhetoric, at first glance has the potential to mark a turning point in post-war Japanese politics. Announcing his new cabinet on October 4, Kishida, as the new leader of Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has committed himself to a more “careful and tolerant” politics, a sign of his willingness to move away from the leadership style of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo (2012-20), sometimes criticized as intolerant of dissent and overly centralizing.

Ambitiously, Kishida has committed himself to promoting “a new form of capitalism” that embraces both growth and redistribution, with a focus on promoting equality and improved social welfare, while revitalizing democracy at home and abroad through enhanced “trust and compassion” and close cooperation with key security partners, such as the United States. 

A natural listener with a reputation for modesty, courteousness, and an enthusiasm for teamwork (reflecting Kishida’s love of baseball), the new prime minister is to his detractors bland, unassertive, and lacking in charisma. Hailing from the more progressive, liberal wing of the LDP, Kishida’s political role-models include Ikeda Hayato (prime minister from 1960-64) and Miyazawa Kiichi (prime minister from 1991-1993). All three men’s political and personal ties are to Hiroshima – a city with a unique past as a casualty of atomic bombing that perhaps explains the tendency of its politicians to avoid the more nationalistic, conservative approach of other senior LDP figures. Kishida’s economic policy, echoing Ikeda’s signature “income-doubling” approach of the 1960s, aims to promote the interests of Japan’s middle class and offset the deepening wealth and income inequality that has bedeviled the country over the past-30 years.

To underscore his reforming credentials, Kishida has brought new, younger politicians into the cabinet. Thirteen of the 20-strong body have had no prior experience as cabinet ministers and many have served just three terms as LDP representatives in the Diet, the National Assembly – a marked departure from the convention that appointees typically have been elected no fewer than five times. As a candidate for LDP president, Kishida staked out his progressive credentials, calling for strict term limits for party officials and hinting at a willingness to tackle the issue of financial corruption that has undermined public confidence in both the Suga and Abe administrations.

However, it is unclear if Kishida will have the political space to promote reform. His success in the LDP leadership race was critically dependent on the backing of more conservative party heavyweights, including Abe, former Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro, and Amari Akira, a former economics minister whom Kishida has chosen for the powerful party position of secretary general. These so-called “three As” were united in their desire to thwart the leadership ambitions of former Defense and Foreign Minister Kono Taro, who was popular with rank and file party members and, most importantly, with the general public. Until a few weeks ago Kono’s victory seemed assured, but his reluctance to defer to his party seniors and his reputation as a maverick — supportive of guaranteed pension provision, reduced reliance on nuclear power, increased immigration, greater gender equality and the right of female succession to the monarchy — prompted a concerted “stop Kono” campaign orchestrated by Abe as the party’s most senior and influential elder statesman. 

Will Kishida remain critically beholden to Abe and the old guard? Some of his key appointments – not just Amari, but also the selection of Aso as LDP vice president, and Takaichi Sanae (whom Abe strongly backed in the first round of voting for the LDP presidency) as chair of the LDP’s key Policy Affairs Research Council (PARC) are intended to shore up support from the party’s powerful factions. However, other decisions, most notably the choice of Matsuno Hirokazu as chief cabinet secretary (reportedly in opposition to Abe’s preference for Hagiuda Koichi) as well as the selection of Kobayashi Takayuki to front a new created ministry of economic security, hint at more independence on Kishida’s part. The new prime minister is seeking not only to accommodate both old and new faces in government, but also to boost the party as a balancing influence against an overly strong cabinet.

On key signature issues, Kishida seems to have in recent days soft-pedaled some of his reformist ideas, particularly when it comes to addressing publicly sensitive corruption issues – an topic that opposition parties are already seizing on as a vulnerability with which to attack the government. Amari’s past record as economics minister was clouded by financial irregularity claims that prompted his resignation some five years ago, and Kishida’s selection of Obuchi Yuko as the chair of the party organization and campaign headquarters is similarly controversial, given her past alleged involvement in accounting malpractice.

Notwithstanding these vulnerabilities, Kishida, in contrast to his reputation for excessive caution, has acted swiftly by calling for the dissolution of the lower house on October 14 and an election on October 31. Astutely, Kishida recognizes the importance of receiving a mandate from the electorate and doubtless hopes to wrong-foot the opposition parties that were counting on a November election and which will have therefore little time to coordinate their campaigns. Latest opinion polls give Kishida a 59 percent approval rating – significantly higher than the 38 percent rating for the outgoing prime minister, Suga Yoshihide, but relatively low for an incoming leader. However, the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, enjoying just 11 percent support, is far behind the LDP. Momentum and novelty may help Kishida sell himself to the electorate, especially via attention grabbing innovations such as the creation of a new “health crisis management agency.”

Kishida has also been wise to ensure continuity in key government portfolios – most notably in foreign policy and defense – by keeping in place the ministerial incumbents, respectively, Motegi Toshimitsu and Kishi Nobuo. Kishida’s own experience (four and a half years as foreign minister) will stand him in good stead in maintaining a resolute posture on China whether by reaffirmation of the Quad process and the Japan-U.S. alliance, or by embracing enhanced missile defense to counter China’s expansive military power or pre-emptive strikes to offset the threats of a nuclear North Korea. Kishida has even flirted publicly with the idea of a more activist Japanese posture on Taiwan and has endorsed the idea of constitutional revision — a key identity politics litmus issue with right-wing members of the LDP.

Kishida’s approach may, however, be more nuanced than might appear at first glance. Where China is concerned, for example, he has not rejected out of hand Beijing’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and his stress on economic security will doubtless embrace the opportunities as well as the challenges of engaging with China, given Japan’s dependence on the China market for trade and investment opportunities. 

In managing a complex policy brief, incorporating both domestic and foreign policy, coordination will be key and here the prognosis is not especially promising. Boosting wages for public sector workers (especially those in health-related services), providing generous child care, and narrowing the rural-urban divide are attractive headline goals, but Kishida will confront the perennial question of how to pay for these initiatives without raising indirect taxation, while avoiding adding to the government’s high levels of public debt. 

Japan’s response to COVID-19 has exposed a sclerotic decision-making structure, and Kishida’s consensual governing style, a weak and inexperienced cabinet beholden to the party’s senior figures, and the instinct to establish time-consuming committees as a way of addressing a raft of critical issues are unlikely to deliver a swift solution to these immediate challenges. It is also unclear whether Kishida has a clear vision for the country’s immediate future. Much of his policy innovation is reportedly the result of some of the prime minister’s younger advisers (including rising stars such as Murai Hideki and Kihara Seiji), but implementation will require an unflinching resolve by Kishida to prioritize amongst these different new policies and for this he will also need a tough and experienced chief cabinet secretary. Matsuno Hirokazu is a relatively unfamiliar face and it seems unlikely that he has the experience or independent clout to deliver effective coordination. Moreover, with Kishida’s progressive rivals, most notably Kono, excluded from cabinet altogether, it is hard to see how the prime minister can build an effective intra-party coalition that can implement genuinely innovative policy. 

Campaigning (whether for the party leadership or in a general election) is very different from governing. For the new prime minister – who appears to be very much a dove in hawk’s clothing – setting a clear direction of travel for his administration may expose the deliberate ambiguities and contradictions that allowed him to build a winning coalition, but one which will come under increasing strain as he builds his administration.