Washington – On Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his intention to resign.
Ulcerative colitis — an ailment that took him out of office when he first became prime minister more than a decade ago — has claimed his tenure once again, with Abe’s announcement surprising many even those who claim to be close to Abe.
Although Abe will stay in the office until the Liberal Democratic Party elects its new leader, leadership transition in Japan has begun with the country’s longest-serving prime minister’s departure imminent.
Fumio Kishida and Shigeru Ishiba, both of whom have served in Abe’s Cabinet, are said to be the two top contenders to succeed Abe. The most recent Jiji Press opinion poll asking voters who they think is the most qualified to succeed Abe, conducted in early August, indicates that Ishiba is pulling ahead of the pack, with close to a 25 percent approval rating. Among LDP supporters, backing for Ishiba is even greater, at nearly 30 percent.
Other hopefuls include Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizuimi, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Defense Minister Taro Kono, former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. Some even say Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike was said to have rekindled her ambition for premiership once again, leveraging on her newly gained popularity as Tokyo’s “commander-in-chief” to counter COVID-19.
No matter who ends up succeeding Abe, daunting challenges await. Domestically, Abe’s successor faces a formidable task of pulling Japanese economy out of the slowdown caused by COVID-19 as Japan continues its delicate balancing act of restarting economic activities while continuing its effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the short term.
They also have other long-term domestic policy challenges that need to be addressed. Such challenges include an acceleration of aging of Japanese society as its population continues to shrink and improving the government’s fiscal situation while sustaining a social safety net for the people.
Externally, Japan faces challenges that are just as serious, if not more.
Abe is leaving the office with two of his major foreign policy goals — a peace treaty with Russia and resolution of the abduction issue with North Korea — not only unresolved but also without prospects for any major breakthrough.
Although not Abe’s making, Japan’s relationship with South Korea is also at its worst since their diplomatic normalization in 1965 with little prospect for improvement. Abe’s effort to get Japan-China relations back on track, which was at the cusp of culminating with Xi’s planned visit to Japan in April 2020, was derailed with the surge of COVID-19 in the spring and has been stalled since with China growing even more assertive in its behavior in East and South China Seas.
Even Abe’s most significant diplomatic achievement — managing to maintain and even deepen the U.S.-Japan alliance by navigating through unpredictable administration of President Donald Trump — has produced mixed results with a much more robust security relationship on the one hand, but a testier trade relationship on the other.
Furthermore, Abe’s resignation comes at a time when Japan was about to begin the revision of its National Security Strategy. Even though the direct trigger for the revision was Japan’s decision to cancel the deployment of Aegis Ashore, the revision of the National Security Strategy was a way overdue given the diplomatic and security environment growing more challenging for Japan.
The problem is the government will have to conclude the revision of three documents — its National Security Strategy, National Defense Program Guidelines and Mid-Term Defense Program — that are critical for the country’s national security strategy almost concurrently in a very compressed schedule. And yet, the end result of these revisions will have a profound impact on Japan’s national security policy moving forward.
A strong political leadership and a steady governing hand are essential in successfully navigating through these national challenges.
However, given the magnitude of the challenges, these qualifications are not enough. Japan needs a political leader who can articulate their clear vision for Japan’s future in a way that resonates with the public and give them hope for their future.
Unfortunately, with the possible exception for Koizumi who is considered “too young” at 39 and “untested (his current position as minister of the environment is his first Cabinet position)” by Japanese standards of political leaders, none of the contenders to succeed Abe have demonstrated their potential as a visionary leader.
There is one way in which the LDP can reinvigorate itself — skip a generation. In addition to Koizumi, today’s LDP has many politicians in their late 30s to early 50s who have demonstrated their potential.
These politicians — many of whom are second- or third-generation politicians — are not only policy savvy but also have innovative ideas for Japan’s future. If today’s LDP party leadership has a courage to pave the way to skip a generation for the party leadership by electing a “holdover” leader who can serve out the remainder of Abe’s term without major disruption, it may be able to successfully revive the party and offer a better chance of generating more visionary leaders.
Otherwise, without a clear frontrunner to succeed Abe emerging, LDP and Japan as a whole will struggle with a prolonged period of leadership deficit, likely to drag Japan into another period of uncertainty.
Yuki Tatsumi is a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the Japan Program at the Stimson Center.