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On the evening of Dec. 6, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe threw his first party as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party’s largest faction, the 95-member Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai.

Abe assumed the post after the faction’s previous leader, Hiroyuki Hosoda, resigned to become speaker of the Lower House following the Oct. 31 general election. In his introductory remarks, Abe promised nothing but his faction’s full support for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who was in attendance and heads his own 43-member faction.

Despite the smiles and toasts that night, however, tensions between Abe and Kishida appear to be on the rise as Abe seeks to strengthen his faction and influence behind the scenes. Tension reportedly rose in November after Kishida rejected Abe’s preference for the powerful LDP secretary-general post and appointed a Kishida faction member and Abe rival, Yoshimasa Hayashi, as foreign minister.

In a Sunday television appearance on BS TV Tokyo, Abe warned that if Kishida’s signature policy of promoting a “new capitalism,” which includes goals of both wage growth and wealth distribution, was perceived as socialism, then the stock market would react negatively.

Kishida, meanwhile, has ordered the disposal of more than 82 million unused face masks, which the government had stored at a cost of ¥600 million in fiscal 2020. The leftover masks were some of the 287 million masks procured by Abe’s government for distribution to nursing care facilities and all households amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The washable cloth masks, highly unpopular due to their small size and inferior quality in halting aerosols compared to nonwoven masks, have been derided as “Abenomasks,” a play on the former prime minister’s Abenomics economic policies.

But the political, and personal, rivalry between the two men goes deeper than policy differences, experts say.

“Abe and Kishida were both elected to parliament in 1993. But Abe’s family, which includes former Prime Ministers Nobusuke Kishi and Eisaku Sato, seems more powerful than Kishida’s family, meaning that, in terms of their daily political lives, Abe was more powerful than Kishida,” says Masato Kamikubo, a professor at Ritsumeikan University’s College of Policy Science Department of Policy Science. “Their relationship, as I understand it, is one of the bully and the bullied.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference in Tokyo in May 2020. | BLOOMBERG
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference in Tokyo in May 2020. | BLOOMBERG

As prime minister, Abe once indicated he’d be happy if Kishida succeeded him. But in advance of the 2019 Upper House election, Abe apparently soured on Kishida, says Kentaro Yamamoto, a politics professor at Hokkai-Gakuen University. Instead of backing leading Kishida faction member Kensei Mizote in Kishida’s home prefecture of Hiroshima, the Abe administration threw its support behind a rival.

“Mizote lost and Kishida would not have been pleased with Abe’s ‘punishment,’” Yamamoto said.

Abe’s preferred candidate and the eventual winner, Anri Kawai, was eventually forced to resign and sentenced in January to one year and four months in prison, suspended for five years, for buying votes in the election.

The Abe-Kishida rivalry also plays a role in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Abe’s home turf. Hayashi, a close Kishida ally who some pundits say could be a future prime minister candidate, represents the prefecture’s No. 3 district, which includes the port city of Hagi. Abe represents the neighboring No. 4 district, which includes the port city of Shimonoseki.

Hayashi’s father Yoshiro and Abe’s father Shintaro were once fierce rivals in a Yamaguchi district under the pre-1996, multiple district seat system. After the single seat district system was introduced, the younger Abe won the No. 4 district, while Yoshiro secured a parliament seat through proportional representation. Yoshimasa Hayashi was elected to the Upper House in 1995 and remained there until the Oct. 31 general election, when he successfully ran in the Yamaguchi No. 3 district of the more powerful Lower House.

“Hayashi was not happy in the Upper House. I understand he tried to move to the Lower House many times, but Abe rejected his efforts. After Abe resigned as prime minister in 2020, Hayashi was able to realize his goal,” Kamikubo said.

“Hayashi graduated from the University of Tokyo and Harvard University. He served as agriculture and education minister and is now foreign minister. In short, he is a very elite politician. Abe, on the other hand, doesn’t have a very good academic record. I think he may have a complex about Hayashi,” he added.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives at a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo on Dec. 21. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives at a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo on Dec. 21. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Abe’s local supporters aren’t necessarily fans of Kishida, either, Yamamoto said.

“There is a deep-rooted rivalry between Abe and Hayashi’s supporters in Yamaguchi and there is no doubt Abe’s supporters are also critical of Kishida, whose faction includes Hayashi,” Yamamoto said.

If Kishida does eventually tout Hayashi as a potential successor, a proxy war with Abe is possible. Abe notably chose not to support Kishida in the September LDP presidential election and instead backed Sanae Takaichi.

For the moment, Takaichi is not a member of the Abe faction. Bringing her into the faction, as some pundits have suggested, and then backing her against a Kishida-supported Hayashi for prime minister could create friction between Abe and other veteran faction members who have their eye on the prime minister’s seat.

Abe and Kishida could also square off ahead of the next Lower House election. In 2016, when Abe was prime minister and Takaichi was internal affairs minister in charge of electoral district reform, parliament agreed that, for Lower House elections after 2022, 10 district seats in 10 rural prefectures, including one in Yamaguchi Prefecture, would be eliminated and 10 new seats would be added in urban areas, including five seats in Tokyo and two in neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture.

With Yamaguchi going from four districts to three, one current representative will be forced to seek a seat through proportional representation. Abe, his brother — Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, also an Abe faction member — and Hayashi have three of the four seats. Masahiro Komura, who belongs to the faction of Abe ally Taro Aso, has the other.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives for a memorial ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake at the National Theater in Tokyo on March 11. | ZUMA PRESS / VIA BLOOMBERG
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives for a memorial ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake at the National Theater in Tokyo on March 11. | ZUMA PRESS / VIA BLOOMBERG

But instead of adhering to the 2016 agreement, Abe ally Hosoda is calling for only three seats to be eliminated in rural prefectures and three seats added in urban areas. Hosoda suggested three seats be given to Tokyo and that Niigata, Ehime, and Nagasaki each lose a district seat.

If passed, the new measure would avoid an Abe-Kishida struggle in Yamaguchi over the three remaining seats. For his part, LDP Secretary-General Toshimitsu Motegi, appointed by Kishida after Abe ally Akira Amari was forced to resign after losing his single-seat constituency in the October election, has said the 2016 decision will stand.

In the lead-up to the Upper House election next summer, however, it is likely to be Kishida’s response to the emerging omicron coronavirus variant that determines how well the LDP fares at the polls, and what the power balance between Abe and Kishida looks like afterwards.

“If Kishida makes a mistake in controlling the omicron variant and his approval rate declines, his government will become unstable and Abe will have more room to attack him,” Kamikubo says, noting the relationship could once again turn to that of the bully going after the bullied, with no guarantee as to who would emerge as the victor.

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