When Fumio Kishida forms his Cabinet this week, all but one of his ministers are set to return.

Toshimitsu Motegi vacated the foreign minister post to take over as the Liberal Democratic Party secretary-general, and in his place, Kishida has decided to appoint veteran lawmaker Yoshimasa Hayashi. Importantly, Kishida made this pick despite objections from inside the party.

Those objections did not come based on issues related to Hayashi’s qualifications or tenure. Rather, the intraparty controversy over his pick is just the front-facing tension masking just some of the behind-the-scenes fallout from last week’s election. Looking at what’s behind Kishida’s choice for personnel changes helps us understand what is going on inside the LDP right now.

First, let’s recap how this situation came about. In last week’s Lower House election, Akira Amari, a party heavyweight and the LDP secretary-general at the time, lost his district in an upset that few, if any, predicted. Although the party rescued Amari by giving him a proportional representation seat, there was no way he could hold onto his secretary-general position considering it was his job to orchestrate the party’s electoral performance. He failed, so it came down to either he resign or gets fired, and Amari chose the former.

Amari’s loss gave Kishida a major behind-the-scenes victory: It meant that a close ally of former Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso was out of the picture, and that Kishida could make his own pick for secretary-general. He decided upon the more like-minded Motegi. Motegi, like Kishida, toes the line between traditional LDP politics and more modern sensibilities. Further, Motegi and Kishida were Cabinet-mates for several years between 2012 and 2017, giving Kishida plenty of time to get to know his future secretary-general and build a relationship with him.

Picking Motegi for secretary-general was a smart move for other reasons beyond the fact that Kishida considers him a trusted agent. Motegi also maintains a good relationship with Abe, meaning that he can play the role of honest broker between Kishida and the conservative forces inside the LDP that fall in line behind Abe. Also, moving Motegi up to the secretary-general position rather than picking a non-Cabinet member offered Kishida the chance to fill the high visibility ministerial post that Motegi left behind.

Kishida picked Hayashi to be his next foreign minister, which is just about the best choice Kishida could have made for himself.

Hayashi is a senior member of Kishida’s faction whose support helped drive the oftentimes cautious Kishida to take bolder steps toward vying for prime minister. Had Hayashi and other faction members not pushed him, Kishida may not be the country’s top leader today. This appointment gives Kishida another ally in the Cabinet, as well as another minister who has the capabilities to excel in the position.

Hayashi has long been a steady hand as a Cabinet minister. He has previously served as the agricultural minister (twice) and education minister, along with a brief stint as defense minister. While fulfilling those roles, he built up a positive reputation among government bureaucrats and demonstrated competency despite the wide range of policy issues across those three jobs. Further, except for an embarrassing incident in which Hayashi used an official vehicle to go to a yoga salon of questionable repute back in 2018, he has managed to avoid the type of scandals that bring down Cabinet officials and cause headaches for prime ministers.

The English-speaking Hayashi also brings unique experience, relationships and skill sets to the foreign minister position. He studied public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government before serving as an intern for U.S. Rep. Steven Neal and later Sen. William Roth.

While working in Washington, Hayashi coauthored the legislation behind the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Fellowship Exchange Program, an initiative that sends U.S. government employees to work inside the Japanese government as a means to cultivate mutual understanding and establish an interpersonal network between the two governments. Hayashi is both well-connected and well-respected within D.C., which gives him a healthy starting point when dealing with Japan’s sole ally.

So, if Hayashi is such a solid pick, why would LDP members object to the point that the dispute spilled into the media space?

One point of contention was concern within the party that Hayashi would be too soft on China. Conservative forces inside the LDP fear that Hayashi — who is a moderate politician and the chairman of the Japan-China Friendship Parliamentarians’ Union — will fail to demonstrate the necessary resolve against an increasingly assertive China.

In addressing that concern, Kishida turned a complaint into an opportunity by bringing another ally into the fold: He decided to name former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani to be his special adviser on human rights to address pro-democracy advocacy in Hong Kong and China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Nakatani was a former faction-mate who backed Kishida in the most recent party presidential race, and his new position relieves some of the pressure from the foreign minister for carrying those contentious messages.

A second source of criticism came from party members who claimed that it was too soon after Hayashi won his first term as a Lower House lawmaker to earn a Cabinet posting. While that might be true for a first-time parliamentarian, Hayashi had held a seat in the Upper House since 1995 and run three ministries thus far, so it had nothing to do with tenure or experience.

Instead, that criticism probably comes from Hayashi’s bold decision to transition from the Upper House to the Lower House in this most recent election. In doing so, he bucked the rules, pushing out another LDP member so he could run in Yamaguchi’s 3rd district. At the time, Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai even went so far as to threaten booting Hayashi from the party if he did not stand down, but such threats rang hollow as Kishida — Hayashi’s faction head and patron — won the party presidency.

Hayashi ended up winning the district handily — something that many LDP heavyweights could not match in their own races — but that did not help his case. He flouted the party’s rules, and some of the other LDP members who rely on those rules for their own political survival did not take kindly to it.

In a demonstration of his growing confidence, Kishida ignored the criticism and decided to go with his personal pick. That assertiveness, along with the agile power play in elevating Nakatani, represent the sort of command decisions that Kishida’s predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, never made. It signals that perhaps Japan’s newest prime minister has what it takes to rein in the myriad rivals inside the LDP.

Right now, Kishida will be pleased with how his fortunes have turned out after this election. He has a new secretary-general, and, importantly, a new ally inside the Cabinet. Ignoring critics inside the party means that Kishida will have to own the success or failure of his pick, but with the well-suited Hayashi taking on the role of the country’s top diplomat, he has plenty of reason to feel confident.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.