Fumio Kishida was elected Japan’s 100th prime minister on Monday. He takes office with two pressing tasks. The first, more long term, is to restore confidence in the economy, which means recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and tackling the growing inequality that marks Japanese society. The second, and most immediate, is leading his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to victory in national elections now scheduled for the end of October.
The second is relatively easy; the first will take energy, creativity and patience. It isn’t clear if Kishida has all three.
In one of his first acts as prime minister, Kishida called a Lower House election for Oct. 31. That is earlier than anticipated — the vote had to take place before the end of the year — and reflects an eagerness to exploit the bump in popularity that new prime ministers enjoy. Unfortunately for Kishida, his Cabinet’s support rate may be 21 points above that of outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, but it is lower than that of Suga or Shinzo Abe when they took office. In fact, it is the third worst inaugural rating of the last nine administrations.
That does not mean that the LDP won’t prevail in the upcoming ballot. Japan’s electorate remains scarred by the last opposition administration — when the Democratic Party of Japan governed from 2009-2012 — and will almost certainly rally behind the current ruling coalition. Turnout is likely to be low, however, and Kishida will find it especially hard to match the results of the last Lower House election, in 2017, when the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito won a landslide victory, taking two-thirds of the seats in the lower chamber.
To win back that support, Kishida will have to boost the economy and gain the public’s confidence. He has said that he wants to implement a “new Japanese capitalism.” It is not clear what that means, other than a rejection of the neoliberalism that provided the conceptual framework for Abenomics, the economic program adopted by Abe and continued by Suga, and a desire to redistribute wealth to reduce inequality and social divisions. He has spoken of a “Reiwa income-doubling plan” that would emulate the extraordinary successes of the 1960s, but details are missing.
That is sure to be a popular objective. Fiscal stimulus will be required to help overcome the COVID-19 economic crisis and the Olympic hangover. Kishida already said his government would put together a multitrillion-yen spending package by the end of the year, which would include subsidies to small- and medium-size businesses.
Success will be complicated by sprawling national debt — Japan is the most indebted of all developed economies — and Kishida’s promise to put the country’s public finances in order. In short, this looks like more of the same economic policies, minus a commitment to structural reform.
Foreign policy will also demonstrate continuity. Kishida has embraced the Free and Open Indo-Pacific construct that calls for cooperation among like-minded democracies and implicitly at least, posits China does not share those values. While he has a reputation for being a dove, during the campaign for president of the LDP, Kishida took a consistently hard line against China.
He declared that the growing power of authoritarian states has created “a strong sense of crisis” and he has come around to the view that Japan needs an offensive strike capability that would allow it to hit enemy bases. One of his first challenges in this area will be deciding on how to handle the Chinese and Taiwanese applications to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade deal. He has rightly expressed skepticism about Beijing’s willingness and ability to join and has not commented on Taipei’s bid. That decision, more than any other, will offer insight into his strategic thinking.
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi will keep their posts, to continue work on modernization of the alliance with the United States that they began in the Suga administration. While there are other holdovers from the Suga team, many others are first-time Cabinet members and relatively unknown. This is an attempt to signal a generational change in leadership, but all reporting suggests that the real power is exercised behind the scenes by a troika of senior LDP politicians — Abe, former Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Akira Amari, the new LDP secretary general.
Those three men, all conservatives, delivered Kishida’s victory in the LDP leadership race. Despite the new prime minister’s reputation as an easy-going centrist, their presence and influence will push the LDP and the new government to the right. Certainly, Kishida’s positions on issues during the leadership campaign indicated that he was moving in that direction.
The broad contours of Japanese domestic and foreign policy are largely set, a product of consensus in the ruling party and a temptation to pursue continuity for continuity’s sake. While there is much value in stable and predictable policies, the most important question is whether policies are meeting national needs. By that standard, there is evidence that the status quo is not enough and change is needed.
There is little indication, though, that Kishida, who claims that his greatest strength is his ability to listen, is prepared to push in new directions. That raises concern that this administration will share the fate of its predecessor and end prematurely. That should worry Kishida, the LDP, all of Japan, along with its friends and partners.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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