Not so long ago, it looked like Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s grip on power was loosening – even as he faced the possibility of rendering himself into an early lame-duck period. Fueling the already precarious political climate, his December announcement to compensate the defense budget with a tax hike was received unfavorably by the public. And as a result of the lingering criticisms of his party’s relationship with the Unification Church, and the continuous resignation of his cabinet members, Kishida’s approval rating dropped to an all-time low in February.
The opposition party was set to utilize that displeasure to its advantage. However, only a few months after the political storm that seemed to engulf the Kishida administration, the Japanese public appears to have already forgotten that it ever took place.
Recently published March polls on Kishida’s approval rating showed that it was overall on an upward trajectory. An online media outlet that covers Japanese electoral politics, go2Senkyo.com, published a study in which they analyzed the polling trends on the prime minister’s approval ratings. Based on their analysis they found that the available data on Kishida’s approval rating for March saw an average increase of 4.2 percent. At the same time, while acknowledging that Kishida’s approval in the last two months was ticking up — an average of approximately 0.6 percent each month — they emphasized that the increase that was observed in March — which almost sextupled — was an anomaly to recent developments.
At first glance, the poll results seem to suggest that the public’s perception of Kishida has turned favorably. For example, among Kishida’s poll-tested achievements by JNN, his visit to Ukraine and the summit with Korean President Yoon Suk-yoel were both approved by more than two-thirds of the public. Also, in terms of his domestic agenda, the same poll showed that the public’s optimism regarding his childcare policy had increased by 8 percent from the previous month, followed by the unveiling of the government’s tentative plan to tackle the declining birth rate “on a different dimension.”
However, although there seem to be ample reasons for the public to feel sanguine about Kishida in recent days, it still does not fully explain the underlying reason for why a public that seemed disgusted with his regime several months ago is looking as if it is forgiving him for his past missteps.
One of the underestimated characteristics of Kishida as a politician — and the cardinal strength that helps him in the polls — is his “harmlessness.”
Unlike his two predecessors — Abe Shinzo and Suga Yoshihide — who frequently fought back against basically every institution that opposed them, sometimes with relish — Kishida has maintained a less confrontational approach. Although Abe used to call out liberal-leaning newspapers, such as the Asahi Shimbun during Diet deliberations, Kishida has refrained from such outbursts. And while both Abe and Suga ruthlessly used their levers of power to elevate and demote bureaucrats from certain positions to achieve their policy initiatives, Kishida has gained a reputation among bureaucrats of being undemanding, and even relaxed to work under. Moreover, both of his predecessors had been scrutinized immensely during Diet deliberations concerning their personal scandals and lack of transparency, but Kishida has yet to receive the kind of immense criticism in the Diet that would stall the legislative process.
It appears that the harmless persona that Kishida has cultivated throughout his pre-premiership has generally stuck with him and has transformed into an invisible shield that renders it difficult for his detractors to cut through. Before becoming prime minister, Kishida himself and others acknowledged that he was a liberal politician, even a dove, who supported socially progressive policies, and advocated for nuclear disarmament. During his campaign for the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election, he highlighted his “listening skills” as a trait to signal his openness and transparency, but also cast an implicit rebuke towards his predecessors who were criticized for lacking them.
One member of the opposition hinted that Kishida’s harmlessness would work in his favor, at the same time inadvertently in that of their own. During an interview with NHK which took place several months after the Lower House election in 2021, Tsujimoto Kiyomi from the Constitutional Democratic Party alluded to that possibility. “I felt that someone like Mr. Kishida, who is not so sharp, but not so good or bad, would be more difficult to fight with,” Tsujimoto said.
Kishida’s harmlessness and the demonstration of it through his consistent efforts to distance himself from his predecessors’ worst instincts have allowed him to adopt policies that would have been impossible for his conservative colleagues. When Abe passed the controversial security legislation in 2015, it invoked a backlash where thousands of protesters gathered around the Diet. Moreover, even though Abe was fiercely advocating to increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP after he resigned from office, the level of defense expenditure was generally capped at around 1 percent throughout his term.
However, in the case of Kishida, he was able to initiate bold security measures, without facing the same heat as Abe did. Not only did Kishida declare that his country would break away from the 1 percent threshold on defense spending and acquire counter-strike capabilities — a dramatic departure from Japan’s exclusively defense-oriented policy — he has recently passed the largest defense budget in post-war Japanese history.
Nevertheless, the opposition has struggled to criticize Kishida’s defense policy during Diet deliberations and instead focused their attention on a scandal involving Economic Security Minister Takacihi Sanae regarding a government document that alleged that she was involved in an attempt to silence media outlets critical of the government. And on the day when Japan’s largest defense expenditure was approved, only a few dozen protesters attended, in spite of Kishida ostensibly adopting the more hawkish security posture that Abe had yearned for.
Kishida’s harmlessness is his paramount political asset. This characteristic has allowed him to be above the fray; maintain his trustworthiness with the public in the face of scrutiny; and pursue policies that exhaust political capitals of nominally conservative policymakers, without expending his own. His harmlessness can be perceived in a negative sense as indecisiveness and gullibility, but if he can make effective use of these traits, there is a potential for him to evolve into a transformational figure in Japanese politics.