Fifth in a series of six.

While former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida was the first to announce he would run for Liberal Democratic Party President, and vaccine czar Taro Kono is currently polling the highest among all potential candidates, there are still three other people appearing in the media surrounding this race that warrant a closer look: former interior affairs ministers Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda, and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba.

Each of these are non-conventional candidates for the LDP, but only one of them may have an actual chance in the upcoming race to be party leader and prime minister.

Sanae Takaichi

A week ago, few people outside Japan had likely heard of Sanae Takaichi. Sure, she has held the position of interior affairs minister for Shinzo Abe on two separate occasions in the past decade, but she has not been a headliner in policy debates or previous party elections. In fact, the only headlines she has made in recent memory were from when she and another LDP lawmaker took pictures with a neo-Nazi who had visited their offices and posted about the meeting online.

Takaichi has had an inauspicious start in this race, exacerbated by the fact that she does not belong to any of the LDP’s seven formal factions. It seemed at first that she would have no hope even of attaining the 20 nominations needed to run. That is, until her patron Abe came back into the picture.

In a surprise move, Abe gave his endorsement to Takaichi. It is surprising because it is unconventional in the LDP’s traditional factional voting patterns, but it is less surprising when one looks at their long-time connection.

Takaichi was voted into the parliament the same year as Abe, in 1993, although she was not part of the LDP at the time. A graduate of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management — a postgraduate school that has matriculated other notable politicians like former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera — Takaichi won a seat as an independent in Nara Prefecture. She branded herself a “New Conservative” and bounced around minor LDP offshoots before joining the party proper in 1996.

Within a few years of joining the LDP, Takaichi’s staunch conservatism and ideological alignment put her into Shinzo Abe’s orbit, where she has remained ever since.

The two main things to know about Takaichi is that she is further right on the political spectrum than the average LDP politician, and that her only lifeline in this race is Abe.

Being a champion of socially conservative views is problematic for Takaichi, since this upcoming party presidential race is inherently tied to the Lower House election that will follow. Any excitement that Takaichi might be able to generate on account of her being the first female prime minister will be immediately tempered by concerns over her ideologies — at least the opposition parties will exploit it that way. In a time when the public is concerned about economic recession and recovery from the pandemic, they will have little interest in amending the constitution or passing laws on desecrating the Japanese flag.

Takaichi’s entry into the race as the far-right candidate brings another challenge: disaffected members of Abe’s home Hosoda faction. The faction already had a conservative option for party president in LDP Policy Research Council chairperson Hakubun Shimomura. He originally bowed out when Suga reportedly promised to give him control of the next economic stimulus package, but with Suga out of the picture and Abe now backing Takaichi, it could generate resentment from the other 95 members of the Hosoda faction.

Japan’s longest-serving prime minister is not a bad person to have in one’s corner, but Abe’s support alone is not enough. Takaichi needs votes, and that means she needs to get factional backing or to entice defections. Abe will have to use his informal power in convincing his home Hosoda faction and individual party members to rally behind Takaichi.

The other problem is that Takaichi has local LDP chapters to worry about. Fortunately for her, she represents what counts for a rural prefecture in Japan, and rural areas are the LDP’s traditional base of power. That will give her some credibility when engaging other outlying chapters, but she has much convincing to do to assure those local voters that she can deliver more benefits than one of the other, more popular candidates.

Ultimately, Takaichi can be thankful that she received a big boost from Abe, but the hardest part is still ahead of her. She will have to campaign relentlessly with the local LDP chapters and do her best to shake off the impression that her right-wing politics will negatively impact the Lower House election. All the while, she has to hope that Abe can deliver parliamentary members’ votes to her.

If all those pieces fall into place, Takaichi could become Japan’s first female prime minister, but there are still a lot of pieces and little time to sort them out.

Shigeru Ishiba

Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba has long been a favorite among the public to become Japan’s next prime minister. He is also one of the most popular choices throughout the LDP’s local chapters. A well-recognized face from his frequent television appearances, he explains policies well, has avoided scandals and has broad experience across several Cabinet and party leadership postings.

Ishiba has one problem, though: Other LDP elites do not want him to become prime minister. In 1993, Ishiba was one of the several LDP members that defected and joined offshoot parties — in his case, the New Frontier Party. Although he returned to the LDP in 1997 and has contributed to its political success through clean politics, effective leadership in Cabinet postings and public confidence, some party leaders consider his past actions unforgivable. Compound that with disagreements over his policies and worldview, and some insiders argue that there is an “allergy” to Ishiba within the LDP.

Shigeru Ishiba remains popular among the public, but has found it difficult to maintain the same level of support within his party. | KYODO
Shigeru Ishiba remains popular among the public, but has found it difficult to maintain the same level of support within his party. | KYODO

That “allergy” was evident when opponents engineered Suga’s election victory last year to prevent Ishiba from winning. It is difficult to believe they would suddenly come around to Ishiba now, especially when they have alternatives: Taro Kono is polling higher than Ishiba right now; Fumio Kishida plays by the party’s rules better than Ishiba; and Sanae Takaichi, while polling low, still carries the symbolic benefit of potentially becoming the first female prime minister.

For good reason, Ishiba has remained non-committal about his intent to run. He has been outside the circle of power for more than five years now, and he could benefit from aligning with another reform-minded candidate like Taro Kono rather than issuing his own challenge and losing. The choice over whether to back another candidate or make his own run will be his focus right now.

To assist his decision, Ishiba will court other factions to see if he can secure enough votes to be a contender. Ishiba already engaged LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai over the last weekend, and he will need to see if he can salvage more votes from others. If the votes are not there for him, one should expect Ishiba to sit out the race and endorse someone who will bring him and his supporters into the next administration.

Seiko Noda

Seiko Noda is an outspoken LDP member who has long been a champion for reform. Like other prominent LDP politicians, she comes from political stock. Her grandfather, Uichi Noda, was an LDP member who served as a Cabinet minister under former prime ministers Shigeru Yoshida and Takeo Miki. She has not shied away from challenging the party’s policies from time to time, and she has long aspired to become Japan’s first female prime minister.

Seiko Noda, a former interior affairs minister, has long aspired to become Japan's first female prime minister. | KYODO
Seiko Noda, a former interior affairs minister, has long aspired to become Japan’s first female prime minister. | KYODO

Noda has tried to run in the past few presidential elections but has never been able to muster the 20 nominations necessary to get her name on the ballot. Unfortunately for Noda, the chances that her fortunes have changed are slim to none. You can likely expect her to fade from contention before the race begins next week.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.

Read more of “The LDP’s game of thrones” series.

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