The Liberal Democratic Party’s closely watched presidential election officially kicked off Friday, with four contenders in the race: Taro Kono, Fumio Kishida, Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda.
The candidates will hold policy debates, outline their platforms and seek further support among LDP lawmakers and rank-and-file members up until the Sept. 29 election, which will ultimately determine Japan’s next prime minister.
Below is a look at who each of the candidates are and where they stand on key issues.
A favorite in public opinion polls, Kono, 58, currently serves as the minister in charge of the vaccine rollout and administrative reform.
He made headlines when he did away with hanko (personal seals) for 99% of administrative procedures last year. Kono has boasted that, despite a slow start to vaccinations in Japan, the rollout picked up pace over the summer.
The Georgetown University graduate is active on social media, especially on Twitter, where his Japanese-language account has 2.4 million followers, making Kono the most followed lawmaker on the platform in Japan. A separate Twitter account tailored for updates on his LDP election bid has already gained over 156,000 followers.
But Kono has also been criticized for snapping at bureaucrats when he doesn’t get his way, raising questions over his leadership abilities. Party executives were frustrated when Kono, as defense minister, abruptly announced the suspension of the deployment of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system — a project that had been in the making for a few years — without informing party executives ahead of time.
Kono, who represents a district in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, comes from a family with a long political background. His father, Yohei Kono, served as LDP president as one of a handful of party presidents who did not become prime minister because the party was an opposition during his reign. His grandfather, Ichiro Kono, served as deputy prime minister and was a heavyweight in the LDP.
Long considered a prospective prime ministerial candidate, Kishida, 64, was the first to announce his bid, making his intentions clear in August, and originally thought that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was his main rival.
He pledged to shake up the party’s executive lineup by imposing a term limit of up to three consecutive years, a promise that appeared to be aimed the party’s sitting secretary-general, Toshihiro Nikai. He also vowed to promote young and mid-level lawmakers over senior lawmakers.
But his strategy to beat Suga fell apart when the prime minister announced he wouldn’t seek re-election. Kishida then focused on getting the support of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the de facto leader of the Hosoda faction, the largest intra-LDP group.
Although Kishida leads a traditionally dovish faction, he has talked about Taiwan being the “next big problem” and touched on revising the Self-Defense Forces law to ease the way for the overseas dispatch of the SDF on evacuation missions.
Kishida was unsuccessful when he ran against Suga in the 2020 LDP presidential election to choose Abe’s replacement, attracting 89 votes out of 535.
When he was foreign minister from 2012 to 2017, he coordinated U.S. President Barack Obama’s landmark visit to Hiroshima, Kishida’s electoral district, as well as an agreement with South Korea over wartime “comfort women” — a pact that has been in limbo under the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
A known conservative lawmaker and hawk, Takaichi, 60, became a strong contender after Abe threw his support behind her, causing other like-minded conservatives to follow suit.
Takaichi — who first entered politics in 1993, representing a mostly rural district in Nara Prefecture — has long been a close ally of Abe and has served under him in various posts when he was prime minister.
She has vowed to continue to pay visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Class-A war criminals alongside millions of war dead, if she becomes prime minister — a move that would likely anger neighboring China and South Korea.
She has also called for an economic security law that would make it more difficult for technologies developed at Japanese research institutes to be taken out of the country and used by foreign governments and their militaries.
A graduate of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, Takaichi worked in the office of U.S. Rep. Patricia Schoeder, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives, from 1987 to 1989.
Noda entered the race at the 11th hour Thursday.
The chances of the former internal affairs minister winning the election appear to be low, but her candidacy is expected to split votes that could have gone to Kono and make it harder for any candidate to win a majority in the first round of voting.
In the past few weeks, Noda has been knocking on the doors of party lawmakers, asking them to support her bid. Noda tried unsuccessfully to run for LDP president in 2015, 2018 and 2020, each time failing to gather the required 20 supporters.
Noda comes from a political family, with her late grandfather, LDP bigwig Uichi Noda, having served as construction minister. Noda first served as a Gifu Prefectural Assembly member before being elected as a Lower House lawmaker from a Gifu electoral district in 1993.
Noda failed to get a party endorsement in the 2005 Lower House election due to her opposition to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s privatization of postal services. Despite an uphill election, she retained her seat in her constituency as an independent. With the blessing of Koizumi’s successor, Abe, she rejoined the LDP a year later in 2006.
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