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The man standing between Abe and his ambitions: Who is Shigeru Ishiba?

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba is back in the spotlight.

Ishiba and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are likely to face off in the Sept. 20 vote to select the next leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which will also determine who is the nation’s next prime minister.

Abe, supported by a majority of LDP lawmakers, is projected to win. But Ishiba is still ready to fight, working to stir public debate over policy issues to win as many votes as possible and retain his political clout after the election.

In fact, the number of votes Ishiba wins will determine the power balance in the LDP and could affect government policies as well.

What is Ishiba’s political background? What issues are likely to be the focus of policy debates? Here is a look ahead at the upcoming vote:

What is Ishiba’s background?

Ishiba is a 61-year-old Lower House member who represents the Tottori No. 1 electoral district.

He has long been regarded as Abe’s top political foe, and is often ranked at the top of polls asking voters who they want to become the next prime minister.

In the previous LDP presidential race, in 2012, Ishiba beat Abe in the first round by winning 199 votes, supported by ballots cast by rank-and-file party members nationwide. Abe, who only won 141 votes in that round, barely topped Ishiba in the next round, held only among Diet members.

According to the latest Kyodo News poll, released Sunday, just over 36 percent of respondents named Abe most suitable as LDP president, followed by Ishiba with 31.3 percent.

Why is Ishiba popular among voters?

Among the general public, Ishiba is widely known as a policy expert with good debating skills — this being one reason he is often featured on TV news programs and has played key roles in Diet sessions.

Ishiba, a book-lover, has a thorough knowledge of defense and agricultural issues and has served in a number of key positions, including defense minister, regional revitalization minister and secretary-general of the LDP.

He is also known to be a military aficionado who loves building and collecting plastic models of tanks, fighters and warships. In addition, he is a big fan of Candies, a female idol group from the 1970s — a rather unusual preference for an LDP heavyweight.

These factors have increased his exposure in the media and have helped him stand out among politicians.

What is his political background?

Ishiba was born on Feb. 4, 1957, in Tokyo, as the eldest son of Jiro Ishiba, then administrative vice construction minister — one of the most powerful elite bureaucrats in the country. The elder Ishiba served as Tottori governor for 15 years until February 1974.

A not-so-widely known fact is that Shigeru Ishiba is a Christian. According to a 2017 biography by journalist Eiji Oshita, Ishiba firmly believes he will go to heaven after death.

After his father died of pancreatic cancer in 1981, the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka urged the young Ishiba to become a lawmaker.

Ishiba eventually ran for a Lower House seat and was elected in 1987.

He started his political career as an expert in agricultural policies. But the 1990 Gulf War and a visit to North Korea in 1992 helped spur his interest in security and defense affairs, Ishiba wrote in a 2005 book.

Observing post-Cold War conflicts, he wrote that he “was convinced this country could collapse” if lawmakers engage only in activities to cater to the interests of local voters.

Serving as the director-general of the Defense Agency, the predecessor of the Defense Ministry, from 2002 to 2004, Ishiba established his reputation as a defense authority.

What policy proposals has Ishiba advocated ahead of the LDP race?

Ishiba has stated his clear opposition to Abe’s goal of having the LDP submit its own constitutional revision proposals — presumably including his own proposal to revise war-renouncing Article 9 — to the extraordinary Diet session in the fall.

By revising Article 9, Abe says he is trying to formalize the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces. He has said that the revision would not change the substance or legal scope of the SDF’s operations at all.

In the past, Ishiba called for a more radical revision of Article 9, which would delete the second paragraph that reads “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.”

Experts say Ishiba’s previous proposal could greatly expand the legal scope of the SDF’s operations, allowing Japan to fully exercise the right of collective self-defense — the right to attack a third country assaulting an ally state, presumably the United States in the case of Japan.

But Ishiba more recently has argued that no national consensus has been formed over Article 9 and that the Diet should not rush to initiate a national referendum to revise the Constitution as has been suggested by Abe.

What about economic policies?

On Monday, Ishiba held a news conference in which he sharply criticized Abe’s economic policies, or “Abenomics,” which consists of ultraloose monetary easing, flexible fiscal spending and structural economic reforms to raise Japan’s growth potential.

Ishiba first pointed out that Abenomics has boosted stock prices and benefited big corporations, saying “they are wonderful things.”

However, ultraloose monetary easing “is a shot in the arm” and cannot be sustained forever, adding that the government should raise Japan’s growth potential by reinvigorating rural regions, according to Ishiba.

Specifically, he would create a special state-linked organization to support rural regions and small firms nationwide, he said.

Ishiba also said the unpopular consumption tax should be raised to 10 percent from 8 percent as scheduled in October next year. The hike is designed to cover rapidly growing social security expenses.

What other issues has Ishiba raised so far?

During an Aug. 10 news conference, Ishiba said he would realize an “honest and fair” administration, indirectly criticizing Abe for two separate cronyism scandals involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen.

To regain neutrality among government officials, Ishiba said he would reform the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs that Abe set up in 2014 to closely control the personnel affairs of hundreds of elite bureaucrats.

But Ishiba’s tactic of attacking Abe over the favoritism scandals may already have drawn backlash.

Hiromi Yoshida, secretary-general of the LDP’s Upper House caucus, reportedly told a news conference on Aug. 21 that he would really “detest” a candidate attacking the personality of another candidate in the presidential race.

Yoshida’s comment has been interpreted as urging Ishiba not to capitalize on the favoritism scandals to criticize Abe.

Yoshida is a key leader of an LDP intraparty faction led by LDP General Council Chairman Wataru Takeshita. Takeshita last week publicly expressed his support for Ishiba in the presidential race, and 20 of the faction’s 21 Upper House members are expected to vote for Ishiba.

Media outlets have speculated that Yoshida may be concerned playing up those scandals too much could adversely affect the LDP’s campaign for the Upper House election scheduled for next summer, in which he himself will run as a candidate.