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Kishida’s Struggle to Win Over Japan’s Conservatives 

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Kishida’s Struggle to Win Over Japan’s Conservatives 

Despite progress on key conservative priorities, the Japanese prime minister hasn’t been able to shake his liberal reputation.

Kishida’s Struggle to Win Over Japan’s Conservatives 
Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

Japanese conservatives found a trustworthy ally in the late Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Abe’s conservative bona fides – represented by his revisionist views on historical memory and what should be taught in history classrooms, his hawkish stance toward North Korea, and his relentless attack on the Japanese post-war governing structure, which he scorned as the “post-war regime” – made him an instantaneous celebrity among his fellow conservatives.

While conservatives adored Abe until his death, their relationship with him was not always smooth. As Tobias Harris noted in his masterful biography, Abe as a politician was inclined to “pragmatic statecraft” and believed that Japan “had to make drastic changes to ensure national survival.” And the methods he used to achieve that end were not always in line with conservative preferences.

For example, Abe decided to enact legislation that would open up Japan for low-skilled immigrants and their family members to compensate for the serious labor shortage. The law was slammed by conservatives as a de facto “immigration law” that would worsen Japan’s public safety and put downward pressure on wages. Although fierce at the time, the conservative attacks toward Abe simmered quickly, and in the end, the underlying relationship between them did not change.

It’s a different story for current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. He was never close to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s conservative base. Kishida once described himself as a “liberal” and was part of a faction renowned for its “dovish” roots. (Kishida recently announced the dissolution of the faction amid a broader scandal regarding fundraising and kickbacks within the LDP.)

Understandably, Kishida was not the conservatives’ first choice during the 2021 LDP presidential election. They wanted Takaichi Sanae, a conservative whose candidacy was supported by Abe. 

There’s some irony, then, in the fact that Kishida has pushed for and achieved long-held conservative policy goals that even Abe himself could not manage. Kishida has put Japan on track to significantly increase its defense spending to a level unparalleled in the country’s post-war history. Kishida’s government approved a plan for Japan to develop long-range missiles to eliminate distant targets that may harm Japanese security, and launched a security assistance program that provides defense equipment to like-minded nations in Southeast Asia for the undeclared purpose of deterring China. On the energy side, Kishida laid the groundwork not only to resume but increase Japan’s reliance on nuclear power, an energy source that has been a focal point in Japanese politics since the Fukushima disaster.

However, even while Kishida rebrands himself as a leader who pursues hawkish policies that match the goals of conservatives, they are not showing any appreciation. Instead, conservatives are looking for reasons to justify their defection from Kishida’s party. 

One notable defector is Hyakuta Naoki, a renowned figure in conservative media. Hyakuta recently launched a new party, the Conservative Party of Japan, making good on a promise he made prior to the passage of the so-called LGBT law, a law to “promote understanding” of sexual minorities, which was vehemently opposed by conservatives.

In June 2023, Hyakuta announced that if the law were to be enacted he would launch a new party to show his anger. On his YouTube channel, where he currently has close to 460,000 subscribers, he argued that the LDP’s determination to pass the law, which it did a week after Hyakuta’s YouTube stream, proved that the LDP is not a conservative party anymore. He even claimed that, since the death of Abe Shinzo, the LDP had revealed its true nature as a “liberal” party. 

It is uncertain how much support Hyakuta will attract before the next general election, which could serve as a test of the relevance of modern Japanese conservatism. However, his open revolt against a party that he and his fellow conservatives staunchly supported under Abe’s leadership shows Kishida’s effort to enact conservative policies has failed to enhance his standing within the conservative echo chamber. Moreover, Kishida’s historically low approval numbers – lower than Abe’s worst ratings – could be further evidence that the defection of conservatives is in full swing. 

Kishida’s desperate – and fruitless – attempt to appeal to the conservatives could be seen in his remarks on constitutional revision. Throughout his premiership, he has pledged that constitutional revision would be achieved by the end of his first term as LDP leader, meaning by September 2024. When his first term ends, Kishida will be up for reelection as LDP president – and by extension prime minister of Japan – and he badly needs to shore up support from the party’s base before then. 

On January 30, in his policy speech for the 213th session of the Diet, Kishida made his pitch once again, setting a clear deadline: “In addition, speaking as the president of the LDP, I remain unchanging in my intention to make constitutional revision a reality during my tenure as president, and towards that end, I intend to do everything in my power to advance discussions on the matter.”

If he is true to his words, that would mean that he only has seven months left to work on constitutional revision. The details of the process and the articles that require revisions are still up for debate. However, even if Kishida can deliver constitutional revision on schedule, if the amendment does not deal with Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, the effort may backfire and cause Kishida more friction with the conservatives. 

Most of the debate about constitutional revision until recently was centered around the text of Article 9, which states that Japan “renounce(s) war,” prohibits the possession of any “war potential,” and is denied the right of “belligerency.” Since the post-war occupation ended, one of the paramount goals for Japanese conservatives has been to revise the wording of the article which they argue has prevented Japan from using force for defensive purposes and left the Japanese Self-Defense Forces unconstitutional. 

Therefore, since the revision of Article 9 is such a high priority among conservatives, if Kishida fails to make any changes to it, or prioritizes the revision of other articles that are less controversial – such as “free education” and the dissolution of combined districts to ensure fairness in electoral representation – it may reinforce the beliefs of conservatives that Kishida is not “conservative” enough, and does not represent their interests.

The contrasting realities facing Kishida and Abe in their relationship with conservatives attest to the importance of image in politics. Even though Abe was at times willing to defy the conservatives, the deep underlying connection that he had with his base and his well-established reputation as a conservative granted him a sense of invincibility against conservative criticisms. 

Conversely, even though Kishida is one of the most hawkish prime ministers Japan has seen on matters of national security, achieving goals that conservatives had desired for decades, he has failed to win his way into their good graces. Kishida cannot shake his image as a “liberal” and “dovish” policymaker. 

For conservatives, no matter how hard he tries, Kishida Fumio is not, and never will be, Abe Shinzo.