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Japan election

Who is Fumio Kishida, Japan's next prime minister?

Experts see Hiroshima native maintaining 'status quo' on economic and foreign policy

Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, bows after he won the race to lead Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Wednesday. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- In picking Fumio Kishida, Japan's political establishment turned to a safe pair of hands to lead the ruling Liberal Democratic Party into a general election this autumn.

In a party leadership election on Wednesday, Kishida comfortably defeated his main rival Taro Kono, Japan's outspoken vaccine minister who bills himself as reformist. He also topped Sanae Takaichi, a hard-line conservative backed by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Seiko Noda, a center-left lawmaker who is progressive on social policies.

Born into a political family in Hiroshima, Kishida, 64, served as foreign minister and party policy chief under Abe. His father and grandfather were lower house lawmakers, he has family links to former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, and heads Kochikai, one of the LDP's oldest factions.

Kishida, who will be formally named prime minister next week, was less popular than Kono among rank-and-file party members in the first round of Wednesday's vote. But he got nearly double the number of votes from lawmakers in the runoff with Kono, highlighting his establishment credentials.

He is a "moderate and well-experienced" politician who "has no track record of major failure," said Masato Kamikubo, a professor of political science at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. "But there's no track record of any major success in policymaking, either."

On economic policy, Kishida has floated the idea of moving away from neoliberalism -- at the core of LDP ideology since the 2000s -- and placing more focus on reducing income disparity.

Kishida has said he plans to expand support for household spending on education and housing, and has proposed an economic stimulus package worth "tens of trillions of yen."

"Inequality has expanded further because of the coronavirus," Kishida told Nikkei in an interview earlier this month. "At companies, should shareholders take all the fruits of their growth? As proponents of stakeholder capitalism argue, they need to be distributed appropriately," he said, adding "raising worker incomes and compensation" should be a top priority.

But Masamichi Adachi, economist at UBS Securities in Tokyo, said that Kishida's economic policies will generally maintain the "status quo."

On foreign policy, Kishida is likely to continue with Abe's "free and open Indo-Pacific" strategy, and has expressed "deep alarm" at China's aggressive behavior on the diplomatic and economic fronts.

"The international community is changing dramatically with authoritarian state systems gaining more power. I have a strong sense of crisis toward this," Kishida told Nikkei. He has also emphasized the need for the capability to strike enemy missile bases to prevent any imminent attack.

As foreign minister, Kishida played a role in bringing about Barack Obama's 2016 visit to Hiroshima -- the first trip to the atomic bombing site by a sitting American president. The native son helped pave the way for the historic moment during visits to the city by Caroline Kennedy, then the U.S. ambassador to Japan, and then-Secretary of State John Kerry. To prepare for personally guiding Obama at ground zero, Kishida is said to have practiced his lines in English at his office.

The incoming prime minister's most important policy issue will be the continual fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Kishida has said he aims to fully inoculate those who want to be vaccinated by the end of November, while promoting the spread of oral coronavirus drugs by the end of the year.

He has proposed setting up a government health crisis management agency to respond to public health crises and a more crisis-resilient medical system.

But Ritsumeikan's Kamikubo also expects no significant change.

"The birth of a 'status quo' leader shows how the LDP lacks the urgency to change," said Kamikubo. "The real focus here is how he forms a cabinet and who he appoints to which role.

"Bringing diversity into his cabinet will be key to winning the upcoming general election," Kamikubo added.

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