As Fumio Kishida began his tenure as the 100th prime minister of Japan this week, there were mixed feelings of hope and anxiety about the new administration as the nation grapples with gargantuan tasks such as the COVID-19 pandemic, dealing with the U.S.-China rivalry and reviving a battered economy.
The ambivalence was evident in the Liberal Democratic Party presidential race. Although Kishida prevailed with the support of parliamentary members, he received only 29% of rank-and-file votes in contrast with rival Taro Kono’s 44%.
Kishida’s predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, had been in power for only a year, but considering the pandemic, his administration made some remarkable achievements. Suga committed Japan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, established the Digital Agency to expedite the nation’s glacial digitalization, lowered cell phone rates and accelerated the public’s inoculation by procuring vaccines through his personal diplomacy when he visited the United States in April.
Furthermore, Suga pushed ahead with difficult decisions that seemed intractable in the past, such as the release of treated water from the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant, as well as raising medical expenses for the elderly in order to maintain social welfare. Suga’s tenure was short-lived, but in hindsight he may be remembered as a consequential prime minister.
Unfortunately, his achievements have not been fully understood by the public. Some may blame the administration’s lack of explanation, but the situation is not so simple. We live in an age where biased criticism on social media has an outsized impact on public opinion. The Kishida administration will also face these structural problems of today’s democracy.
The Kishida administration came to power on the heels of Suga’s foundering popularity. With the new prime minister’s approval rating getting a slight bump and the LDP’s approval rating remaining high, expectations for his administration are naturally high. Kishida’s stable support from the party’s factions and his pledge to focus on the middle class are among the many things that are expected of him.
Kishida, however, has also toed a cautious line on almost everything, raising questions about how he will actually deliver on his policies.
For one, his cautious approach could signal a return to conventional, bureaucrat-led policies. There is a strong perception that the new Cabinet is heavily under the influence of former prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso, along with politicians and bureaucrats in their orbit. Naturally, they would be less inclined for a generational change. The dynamic was visible in the LDP race, where Kishida vanquished Kono, the former foreign minister who strongly advocated for generational change.
COVID-19 remains the most important short-term policy for any world leader, but in Japan, however, the discourse on this has been strikingly different from that in the West. In Japan, the ratio of cases to the population is a third of that of the United States and a quarter of Britain, according to OECD statistics. The number of deaths is one-twelfth that of the United States and one-fifth of the United Kingdom. Japan has administered the fifth highest number of vaccines in the world out of a group that includes large population centers such as China and India. It also has the most hospital beds per capita — about four times that of the U.S. and 1.5 times that of Germany.
And yet, much of Japan remained alarmed about the prospects of a “health care collapse,” curtailing economic activities more than necessary.
The crux of the matter is that the nation’s medical resources have not been used effectively at all. The so-called “iron triangle” comprising the Japan Medical Association, public health officials and legislators under the thumb of the medical lobby has been stonewalling an increase in the number of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients.
Will the Kishida administration be able to cut through these vested interests? For the newly established Digital Agency to function, it needs to make bold changes to conventional accuracy and mechanisms, but there are concerns that its ability to promote such reforms will be weaker than that of the Suga administration.
Additionally, his economic policy remains vague. Kishida raised several economic policies during the LDP race. First, he said that Japan should break with the “neoliberalism” that has prevailed since the Junichiro Koizumi administration in 2001. The definition of neoliberalism may vary, but Japan remains the most highly regulated of the major industrialized nations, ranked 29th in the World Bank’s Business Environment Ranking. Corporations are prohibited to own farmland and ride-sharing cannot exist at all. The economy can’t be revitalized without deregulation and more investment opportunities.
Kishida also talked of reviving the middle class and doubling the population’s income. They are commendable goals, but he hasn’t said how he intends to achieve them. To be sure, this is a point not only true for Kishida but also the other candidates in the LDP presidential election. There was plenty of talk about lofty ideals, but very little discussion about the means to achieve them.
Lastly, the LDP’s system also deserves wider discussion. Japan’s ruling party has held regular elections for the presidency once every three years. Historically, Japan’s parliamentary cabinet system was modeled after that of the United Kingdom.
In Britain, however, there are no such regular elections for party leaders. In the past, the previous electoral system allowed the LDP to have a monopoly on power. Prime ministers were chosen by an election within the ruling party. Now, however, the electoral system since the 1990s allows for an easier change of government, at least in theory. Therefore, it would be more sensible for Japan to align its system closer to the United Kingdom, where the prime minister’s tenure depends on electoral results.
There is little reason left for Japanese political parties to hold periodic elections. This outdated practice partly explains why Japanese prime ministers on average have only lasted a mere 2.2 years in office.
Heizo Takenaka, a professor emeritus at Keio University, served as economic and fiscal policy minister in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi from 2001 to 2005.
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