Tokyo Report

The Engaging Outsider: Can Ishiba Shigeru’s Iconoclastic Policies Gain Traction?

Recent Features

Tokyo Report | Politics | East Asia

The Engaging Outsider: Can Ishiba Shigeru’s Iconoclastic Policies Gain Traction?

The longtime LDP leader has never won the top office, in part because of the pragmatic approach that makes him popular with the public.

The Engaging Outsider: Can Ishiba Shigeru’s Iconoclastic Policies Gain Traction?

LDP heavyweight Ishiba Shigeru in his office on Dec. 7, 2023.

Credit: Kenji Yoshida

It was the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack when we met House of Representatives member, former Defense Minister, and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) heavyweight Ishiba Shigeru in his office in Nagatacho.

Another battle was brewing that day. A scandal-driven frenzy in the Japanese Diet over the secret slush funds of LDP factions, or habatsu, had the political class in an uproar. Most politicians would have demurred from speaking with journalists.

But Ishiba received us in his office in an open, engaging manner. Inside the book-lined walls, and under posters of the natural beauty of Ishiba’s native Tottori Prefecture, we sat around a table and asked him about a range of political, economic, diplomatic, and historical topics. He answered every question forthrightly. 

By the end of the 50-minute or so interview, we had a better sense of Ishiba as an outsider who seeks dialogue, an observer who wants to know how the world looks from different perspectives. As Japan’s political ecosystem shuddered through another money-tainted scandal, Ishiba’s office seemed an oasis of calm, rational discourse.

Can Ishiba’s style of open debate win over faction-clogged Nagatacho? Can his penchant for speaking to friends and enemies alike help ease tensions in East Asia and beyond?

The Scandal of the Hour

Matsuno Hirokazu is the former secretary of the Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai (Seiwaken) – a political faction once headed by the late Abe Shinzo and still largely defined by adherence to his policy preferences. Matsuno has been accused of skimming money from Seiwaken events in the form of kickbacks from the sale of tickets. 

Dozens of politicians from Seiwaken and four other LDP factions are also implicated in what is said to be an unprecedented multi-million-dollar laundering scheme that persisted over many years. 

Amid the resulting media and political turmoil, Ishiba seeks engagement. Surprisingly, given the bad odor in which the factions find themselves in the wake of the Matsuno affair, Ishiba argues for the necessity of the habatsu.

“Factions that are solely for the sake of accumulating money and getting people into posts are not functioning as factions ought,” Ishiba explained.

“It would be fine if there were factions that could decide things like what course Japan should be taking into the future. What should economic policy be? What should diplomatic policy be? What should defense policy be? These are what factions should be considering.

“But now, factions are all about money and positions. It’s no wonder, then, that politics is divorced from the sentiment of the Japanese people. This is not a good situation,” Ishiba lamented. 

The Lingering Ghost of Abe Shinzo

We asked if overwrought factionalism is a legacy of the Abe era. After all, Matsuno was the head of the faction that Abe dominated until his assassination in July 2022. And those most heavily implicated are all from the same Abe faction. Even today, it remains a standard refrain among some Japanese conservatives to ask rhetorically what Abe would have done in a given situation.

“Yes, I think so,” Ishiba replied. “Abe-san was relentless in expelling [from his faction] anyone who had a different opinion than he did. My first experience as minister of defense was when Koizimu Junichiro was prime minister [2001-2006]. For the longest time, I and Koizumi-san were at odds. Yet he did not make personnel decisions based on his personal likes and dislikes. He selected people based on whether he thought they would benefit Japan. But this [style of governing] steadily disappeared once we got into the Abe era.”

Ishiba also hearkened back to a past when politicians stood up to injustice even within their own clique. 

“Around when I was first elected [i.e., in 1986] there were big scandals, like the Recruit scandal and the Zenekon Oshoku scandal,” Ishiba recalled.

In the late-1980s Recruit scandal, Diet members and media moguls received pre-IPO shares of a Recruit Corporation offshoot company. The Zenekon Oshoku (“general contractor corruption”) scandal of the early 1990s saw developers and construction contractors paying bribes to politicians in exchange for government contracts.

“The LDP was going through a period of crisis. But back then, younger members of the Diet did their political duty, no matter how much resistance or scolding they faced inside a given faction,” Ishiba said. “There’s none of that anymore. Everyone does as they are told by their faction.”

The Man Who Would (Not) Be King

Ishiba has served as LDP secretary-general and has held critical Cabinet positions. In the world of Japanese politics, the natural next step is to vie for the presidency of the LDP (which also means becoming prime minister, so long as the LDP remains in power). For years, Ishiba has been the most highly favored to take on the nation’s top position in the polls.

And yet, he consistently fails to reach the crest. We asked why.

“Because the people and the Diet have a different awareness of things,” Ishiba replied. “Opinion polls take in the whole gamut of political affiliation, from unaffiliated to the Japan Communist Party to the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. My support comes rather from those who support the opposition parties and those who are not affiliated with any party at all.”

As an outsider who is also a member of Japan’s governing party, Ishiba views Japan’s political situation from multiple angles. He pays a political price for this multi-perspectival approach, however. His eclectic views make him popular with voters, but also too broad-minded for the faction-driven LDP to wish to advance to party leadership.

Then there is Ishiba’s political heresy, at least in what is still Abe’s LDP.

“In my view, Japan’s economy has gotten to where it is today because of setting the interest rate at near zero, the steadily decreasing population, not making high-end goods, and keeping the tax rates low,” Ishiba said. Such critiques are anathema in an LDP still dominated by Abenomics.

“We should raise the corporate tax rate,” Ishiba argued, continuing with the heterodoxy. “If we don’t raise the interest rate immediately, then there will be no end to the weak yen. If we don’t create conditions wherein marriage is economically viable, then there will be no stopping the population decrease, and in 20 years there will be no population rebound.

“The policies which look only to the moment and are satisfied if everything is fine today are mistaken. In terms of policy, then, my views are different [from the mainstream]. Until I change my views and claim to support policies that I think are mistaken, there’s no chance I’ll become the prime minister.”

Defense, Offense, and Dialogue

Ishiba also diverges from the late Abe and his faction over contentious Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. For Ishiba, Article 9, Clause 2, (a clause Abe wished to retain) is nonsensical and should be removed.

The clause reads: “In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

 “I believe that as long as this clause is in place, Japan’s security policies will never be aligned with reason,” Inshiba insisted. “Having the latest fighter planes, destroyers, and tanks does not automatically translate into the ability to fight.”

In other words, for Ishiba, it is absurd for Japan to possess “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential,” when these are constitutionally “never to be maintained,” and when, furthermore, “the right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

“In the Geneva Conventions and Hague Conventions, the rules of warfare [imply] the right of belligerency. However, Japan does not recognize those rules of warfare. It’s unfathomable. This is why Abe-san and I did not see eye-to-eye,” Ishiba explained. 

Before moving to constitutional revision or amending defense posture, Ishiba also emphasized the importance of engaging the Japanese public, a step largely ignored under the Abe era.

“For example,” Ishiba said, in Japan “nobody knows anything about the Geneva Conventions. However, the Geneva Conventions instruct that citizens of each country must be educated as to what is written in those conventions. In Japan, this education has not been carried out in the slightest.”

Seeking the Truth about the Japan-U.S. Alliance

The lack of sufficient dialogue over Japan’s defense spending and the nature of the Japan-U.S. alliance likewise concerns Ishiba. 

“I think the debate around whether to set defense spending at 2 percent of GDP or at so many yen per year, is misguided,” Ishiba said, referring to a centerpiece policy of the current Kishida administration’s defense policy. “Some say that NATO countries spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, so Japan must follow suit. But Japan’s security environment is worse than NATO countries’, so 2 percent of GDP may not be enough.”

On the Japan-U.S. alliance, Ishiba agreed with our suggestion that Japan has adopted a passive posture. “Japan must think for itself how to deploy American forces in Japan, and not simply view it as a duty to allow the Americans to put bases anywhere in Japan that it likes,” Ishiba said. 

Ishiba also raises an important question of at what point the United States will put boots on the ground for Japan. “Biden gives weapons and intelligence to Ukraine but refuses to fight alongside Ukraine. In which situations will the United States deploy nuclear weapons in Japan’s defense?” he questioned. Similar concerns about the reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent have been raised in South Korea, a fellow U.S. ally, as well. 

Ishiba also wonders about reciprocity. In which situations would Japan’s forces fight alongside the American military? More unanswered questions, and more missed opportunities for dialogue.

Making Peace With the Past

We asked Ishiba for his take on Japan’s seemingly close, yet distant partner, South Korea. Lost in the din of the latest political scandal in Japan has been South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s attempts to repair diplomatic relations with Tokyo after years of alienation over historical issues.

“It is of utmost importance now for Japan to build a solid relationship of trust with South Korea,” Ishiba said. “Next year South Korea will hold parliamentary elections. But President Yoon’s support is not by any means assured, and many in the country are critical of him. So, we must lend our support to the efforts that President Yoon is making.”

“Is this a question of leadership inside of Japan, then?” we asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “Many in Japan speak very badly of South Korea but not Taiwan. Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula were both Japanese colonies.”

So why does one former colony feel fondness toward Japan and the other animosity?

“Because Taiwan wasn’t a country,” Ishiba continued. “It was an island considered barbaric, not Chinese, so the Qing government ceded it to Japan [in 1895 under the Treaty of Shimonoseki].”

By contrast, “Korea was an independent nation inhabited by very proud people,” Ishiba posited.

Ishiba, therefore, believes Japan should have never annexed the Korean Peninsula. “There’s no need to flatter Korea or to lay out the logic of the past, but we should admit that what was a mistake was a mistake,” he said. “We must redouble our emphasis on the fact that it is vital for this region that Japan and South Korea understand one another and cooperate.”

Sanctions Have Not Solved the Abductions Issue

Perhaps the most pressing diplomatic conundrum Tokyo faces today is the North Korean abduction issue. The family members of the abduction victims are rapidly aging. Some have already passed away without seeing their loved ones return.

On this issue, Ishiba again breaks with the LDP mainstream.

“Japan alone does not have official relations with North Korea,” Ishiba stressed. “It’s important for us to have official negotiations with North Korea, to express Japan’s side, and to understand where North Korea is under mistaken views. Currently, we rely on Mr. Xs [to carry out back-channel communications], but we don’t even know where Mr. X is.”

Ishiba then touched on Abe’s failure in one of the cornerstone initiatives of his administration.

“Prime Minister Abe vowed to bring the abduction victims home while in office. But what is there to show for it?” Ishiba asked rhetorically.

We followed up with a question. Japan appears to be relying on sanctions under the leadership of the United States as a way to resolve the abduction issue. Is this a mistaken policy?

To this, Ishiba replied directly: “Have the sanctions worked? Not one person has come home.” 

Political Strength in Diversity of Thought

As our interview with Ishiba neared an end, we were struck by how open he is to dialogue. We were also struck by the contrast with the current prime minister, Kishida Fumio, who is not known for his communication skills.

“What Kishida lacks is the ability to convey his ideas [to the public],” Ishiba said about the LDP’s leader. “This is why we need various Diet members who can speak their minds on various subjects, whether that be budgetary matters, economic policy, defense policy, Israel and Hamas, or Russia and Ukraine. It’s pointless if nobody speaks out, but everyone criticizes Kishida for not expressing himself.”

Ishiba has spent his career doing just this: speaking out on various subjects. His contrarian positions were valued by Koizumi. But Ishiba was held at arm’s length by the factionalist Abe Shinzo.

Now, as faction scandals threaten to bring down the administration of Prime Minister Kishida and the LDP, Ishiba’s style of open dialogue may be the way forward to healthier politics in Japan. That same politics of dialectic may also strengthen Japan’s diplomatic bonds in an increasingly dangerous East Asia.