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Is Prime Minister Kishida Leading Japan by Default?

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Tokyo Report | Politics | East Asia

Is Prime Minister Kishida Leading Japan by Default?

With plummeting approval ratings, Kishida’s biggest strength seems to be that there’s no obvious candidate to replace him.

Is Prime Minister Kishida Leading Japan by Default?
Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s plummeting popularity is raising serious questions about his future prospects. While successfully steering Japan on a course toward major military power status and global diplomatic prominence, his domestic political fortunes have never been more in doubt. A stark contrast is becoming apparent between Kishida’s successes in the conduct of Japan’s international relations and his expanding list of domestic policy shortcomings. The lack of an obvious replacement for the job, however, raises the question whether Kishida remains Japan’s prime minister by default. 

The immediate domestic political conundrum Kishida faces is whether to dissolve the lower house of the Diet for a snap election this year – a prospect growing ever more distant as his own political standing deteriorates among Japanese voters. Public support for the Kishida Cabinet has recently fallen to fresh lows with the latest polls showing approval rates in the 20 percent range (sometimes called the “danger zone”) – the lowest since he took office in October 2021. 

His disapproval rating is equally alarming at over 50 percent, reaching more than two-thirds of those polled in some surveys. An equal proportion of those who disapproved did so because of low expectations of government policies, in particular the Kishida administration’s proposed tax cut. 

On November 2, the Kishida cabinet approved a comprehensive economic stimulus package that includes a fixed 40,000 yen per capita income tax cut and benefits for low-income households, among other measures aimed at combating high prices and encouraging sustained wage hikes. The cost estimate of the package is estimated to be over 17 trillion yen, with a 13.1 trillion yen general account supplementary budget for fiscal year 2023 compiled as a source of funds.

The political fall-out from the tax cut has been far from positive, however. It is widely viewed as a transparent political ploy to regain popular support for the government and for the prime minister himself – a necessary condition for Kishida to call a lower house election (due by October 2025) and to ensure his own re-election as Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president in September 2024. Voters are describing the tax cut as a political handout to “buy” votes in a general election that Kishida can call at any time. 

Many of those canvassed in an NHK poll were also critical of the tax cut not only as an attempt to win votes but also for its failure to address the target of the government’s plan – rising prices. Even among those who supported the Cabinet in the polls, around 70 percent failed to show active support for Kishida. Their approval was based on their support for the political parties in government and the fact that the Kishida Cabinet was preferable to possible alternatives. 

Informed elite opinion has been equally critical. Professor Emeritus Noguchi Yukio of Hitotsubashi University, an academic specialist in finance theory and the Japanese economy, has asked, “What is the purpose of the tax cuts?” In his view, the measures are riddled with problems and it was “sad” that the government’s ability to conceptualize policy had clearly deteriorated, particularly the lack of clarity about what the purpose of the tax cut was. While Kishida was arguing that it was to pass on increased tax revenues to the public as part of the government’s stimulus package, in Noguchi’s view, the idea of returning tax revenues to taxpayers if they were higher than expected was “a strange idea.” 

The problem, Noguchi concluded, was “a lot more serious than just popularity-seeking, so it was only natural that Kishida had been criticized for his electioneering and ‘popularity contest’ policies.” 

Noguchi is not alone in thinking the tax cuts generate all kinds of policy contradictions. For example, the conservative Sankei Shimbun has argued that Kishida’s explanations in the Diet for the cuts are “repetitive and facile-sounding.” Considering that nearly 70 percent of the revenue in the supplementary budget is covered by increasing issuance of government bonds, his explanation for “giving back” was “incongruous,” Sankei declared. 

The measures have also been condemned as “foolish” by another academic expert, particularly as Japan is the most indebted advanced economy in the world “after years of spending beyond its means.” 

Moreover, the government has to find the funds to undertake an historically unprecedented defense build-up financed by an equally unprecedented level of projected defense spending, which will inevitably result in tax hikes. Even policies popular with the public such as boosting support for child-rearing families and the workforce may result in popularity costs if it is unclear how they will be funded.

The problems and blatant contradictions in Kishida’s fiscal policies are also being pointed out by elements from within his own government. Another of Kishida’s alleged failings on the tax measures is the fact that he did not consult sufficiently with other big powers in the party, including LDP Vice President Aso Taro. In short, Kishida went out on a limb in devising the policy out of blatant political self-interest instead of consulting with other LDP big wigs. The outcome has been growing unease within the party about Kishida’s leadership as both LDP president and prime minister, particularly when later polls have shown that two-thirds disapprove of the prime minister’s pump-priming package and one-third want him to resign immediately.

Another factor in play in the public opinion polls has been the scandals and dismissals of those in state ministerial and parliamentary vice-ministerial positions in Kishida’s government, for which voters hold the prime minister largely responsible. In their view, there have been too many dismissals in the administration under Kishida’s watch. He is being criticized not only for appointing senior-level politicians who have demonstrated “bad behavior” such as tax evasion and posting illegal campaign ads but also for being too slow in dismissing them, thus displaying “lax crisis management.” 

Around two-thirds of those surveyed in the NHK poll thought that Kishida should be held either “greatly” responsible or responsible “to some extent” for appointing these officials to their posts. To add to Kishida’s woes, yet another high-level government official (Parliamentary Vice Minister of Defense Miyake Shingo) has now been accused of sexual harassment. This comes with news of possible violations of the Political Funds Control Law by five LDP factions, details of which have been submitted to the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, which has now launched a special investigation.

The embattled premier has now rejected the option of seeking a fresh voter mandate sooner rather than later, with the media forecasting that he will seek an opportunity to call a snap election perhaps in the spring or later next year ahead of the LDP leadership race in September in order to ensure his uncontested re-election as party president. The growing LDP consensus is that it may take a while for the administration to recover its lost political ground.

Kishida will try to revive the economy and achieve “wage hikes that exceed inflation” by early summer 2024 so as to regain public confidence ahead of a snap election. He will also try to boost his personal popularity and that of his administration by maintaining his frenetic diplomatic schedule and playing up his achievements in Japan’s foreign relations. 

In the meantime, however, the number of potential rivals for his job in the LDP’s higher echelons will continue to grow, although Kishida’s biggest advantage is that there is no obvious replacement for him as LDP leader and prime minister. Despite rumblings in the ranks about the LDP’s recent local election setbacks, for which the Kishida administration’s unpopularity is also being held responsible, the LDP’s virtual one-party dominance shows no signs of weakening. Public support for opposition parties remains low. For the time being, notwithstanding his domestic political and policy troubles, Kishida remains prime minister by default.