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Japan election

Japan's LDP leadership race offers rare diversity of views

Candidates float positions from hawkish on China to pro same-sex marriage

The campaign to lead Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party officially began on Sept. 17 with four candidates: from left, Kishida, Kono, Noda and Takaichi. (Nikkei montage/AP)

TOKYO -- There has never been such diversity of views among candidates to lead Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party as it kicks off its triennial presidential campaign on Friday.

One favors same-sex marriage and is openly opposed to nuclear power, while another is against married couples even having different surnames and advocates giving Japan the military capability to strike enemy bases. Another hopeful has staked out a centrist position, calling for modest change on almost every issue.

"The LDP used to host a very limited range of views within the party. The range of views has broadened significantly," said Yasunori Sone, a professor emeritus of politics at Keio University, of the country's main conservative party that has ruled Japan for much of the period since 1955.

There are two leading contenders: liberal Taro Kono, 58, and establishment candidate Fumio Kishida, 64. The two longshot candidates are nationalist Sanae Takaichi, 60, and another liberal, Seiko Noda, 61.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Sept. 3 that he will not seek reelection as party chief following a prolonged slump in his public support. Whoever replaces him will become Japan's next prime minister.

The flowering of differing opinions in the LDP reflects dramatic changes in Japan and beyond, including the COVID-19 outbreak, climate change, the rise of China and widening economic inequality. The country is under unprecedented pressure to adapt or risk being left behind.

"Suga failed because he was a manager, not a leader. Leaders set goals or aspirations, as John F. Kennedy has said: 'We will put a man on the moon by the end of the decade,' said Jesper Koll, an adviser at online brokerage Monex Group Japan. "Leaders must be ambitious and inspire."

Markets cheered the news that Suga will step aside. Tokyo stocks have risen 6% since his announcement, reflecting investor hopes for a generational change in the top ranks of the LDP and the emergence of a more popular and effective leader.

The leadership election will be held Sept. 29, followed soon after by a general election. The four-year term for lower house members ends Oct. 21.

The most immediate challenge facing the LDP-led government, which has been in place since December 2012, is containing COVID and putting the economy back on track.

The Suga government lost its way, despite rapid progress its vaccine drive in the past few months, as new infections spiked in August, overwhelming the health care system, forcing many patients to recuperate at home and shattering public confidence.

With his public support fading, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced on Sept. 3 that would not seek reelection as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic party.   © Reuters

Kishida has called for "field hospitals" to be set up by converting large public spaces into makeshift hospitals to accommodate and treat a large number of patients. Takaichi says more taxpayer money should be set aside to develop COVID drugs and vaccines in Japan. Kono argues that medical treatment can be made more efficient and speedier by eliminating red tape.

"The government needs to put in place more robust defenses against COVID before the next wave of infections, which could start as early as this winter," Keio University's Sone said.

The biggest long-term challenge for Japan is its aging population and the rising cost of entitlements such as health care and pensions. The issue has not been a major focus of the leadership contest but is a real concern to investors, said Koll.

"Kono is an investor favorite because at least he talks about the need to raise [Japan's] potential growth, rather than just filling the current GDP output gap with another extra budget," he said.

Takaichi proposes a temporary freeze on the primary budget balance goal, referring to the government's target of balancing the books -- not including interest payments on the debt -- by 2025. She wants the government to spend its way out of deflation. Kishida calls for an economic stimulus package of about $300 billion.

Another long-term economic issue facing the country is climate change and energy policy. Kishida stresses that nuclear power is necessary for Japan, noting that the goal zero carbon emissions cannot be achieved with renewable energy alone. Takaichi calls for the development of small underground reactors and nuclear fusion technology.

Kono is a well-known proponent of renewable energy and nuclear power antagonist. He argues that coal power should be the first to be phased out, followed by natural gas. Nuclear power, he says, can be used during the transition to renewable energy, but he argues that new nuclear plants should not be built.

Foreign policy is also a prominent issue for the LDP presidential candidates. Amid growing concern about China's military buildup and its expansionist behavior, all candidates are in favor of boosting Japan's defense spending. Kono says: "Japan should join hands with the international community to oppose any attempt to alter national borders, and send a message that there is a cost to such attempts."

Kishida stresses the need to maintain dialogue with China, while adding that "Japan needs to say what needs to be said."

Takaichi takes the most hard-line stance. She advocates building an offensive military capability for Japan, including the ability to respond to cyberattacks. Takaichi also said she would continue to visit Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese Imperial Army soldiers killed during World War II and several convicted war criminals, saying the shrine visits are a matter of religious freedom.

"Global investors are a little scared of Takaichi," Koll said, adding that there is a huge worry about Japan having such an openly confrontational leader.

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