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Japan's new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, hopes to use his listening skills and moderate approach toward leadership to get the nation back on track after the COVID-19 pandemic.    © Getty Images
The Big Story

Leading by listening: Kishida offers Japan a traditional style of politics

New prime minister's election is a victory for the party machinery of previous decades

RYO NEMOTO, Nikkei staff writer | Japan

TOKYO -- "I have often heard it said that 'Kishida is finished,' but I believe I would be well suited to the role of prime minister."

This was Fumio Kishida's blunt assessment of his chances when he announced his bid for Japan's top job on Aug. 26. On Monday, however, he proved his critics wrong by winning the coveted role, making him Japan's 100th prime minister.

Few people, indeed, rated Kishida's chances highly when he first announced his bid. As the head of one of the more traditional intraparty factions, Kishida has long been considered a contender for Japan's top spot. But having twice missed his chance to become president of the ruling party (which almost automatically leads to the prime minister role), most were already looking past him when he nonetheless managed a come-from-behind win over three other challengers in his third try for the Liberal Democratic Party presidency.

It was a victory not only for Kishida, but for his self-effacing, consensus-building style, one which characterized earlier decades of Japanese politics and ultimately helped him win out over a vastly more popular reformist opponent. Kishida is known for his passive demeanor: "It has been said that I am a boring speaker, but my strength lies in my ability to listen. I am the leader that this era requires," he said, in a campaign speech on Sept. 17.

Kishida represents a departure from recent years, an era of "self-made" politicians who didn't rely on the traditional machinery of the hegemonic LDP for their victories. Over eight years Shinzo Abe had built the longest-lived government in the postwar era through strong leadership. And last year Yoshihide Suga became prime minister without a political faction of his own. With Kishida, for the first time in a decade, Japan will have a traditional LDP prime minister, who won the traditional way: through painstaking political deal-making and horse-trading. Kishida's triumph will be welcomed by party elders in a system where decisions are made by powerful political faction leaders steering blocks of votes, and who value self-deprecation and consensus.

Fumio Kishida shows off the notebook he uses to write down ideas from the public at a news conference in Tokyo on Aug. 26, where he announced his candidacy for the LDP's presidential election. (Photo by Wataru Ito)

"For a long time now, there has not been an election in which the major faction has united to support its leader for the presidency," Takashi Mikuriya, professor emeritus at University of Tokyo, commented. "Even the Abe and Suga governments came into being in an irregular fashion. A legitimate prime minister has been born in the sense that [Kishida] was chosen in the traditional manner of the LDP."

"If you look at the cabinet and the party executives, he took care of the balance between the old and the young, and struck a perfect factional balance so that no one can complain," said Mikuriya.

Ironically, an election that was ultimately won by the forces of the status quo in the LDP was itself unusually difficult to predict, a rare moment of suspense in Japan, where election results are usually a foregone conclusion.

The LDP faced a wave of public anger due to mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, which was amplified by Suga's decision to allow the Tokyo Olympics to go ahead.

Japan's outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga holds a bouquet of flowers as he leaves the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Oct. 4. The LDP faced a wave of public anger under his leadership due to mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic.   © Reuters

With parliamentary elections later this year, the LDP wanted to limit the potential damage. Many in the party saw their best hope for avoiding disaster in the candidacy of one of Kishida's rivals, Taro Kono, a former defense minister who took an early lead in opinion polls and appeared poised to seize the job.

In his speech on Sept. 17, Kishida spoke in the dialect of Hiroshima, his family's hometown, when stressing his "ability to listen." He spoke of his aim to bring "polite and tolerant politics" to his leadership. This approach paid off, and Kishida received broad support from party elders who were not keen on the radical changes that Kono represented. Kishida is known for following the rules and not making enemies. Kono, by contrast, had angered LDP stalwarts by calling for an end to nuclear power in Japan and pension reforms -- both policies that run counter to LDP's traditional positions.

The party's need for a radical reformer like Kono to blunt popular anger quickly disappeared when nationwide infection numbers plummeted and the public's ire began to fade.

"Kishida was chosen because, among the four candidates, he was the most moderate," said Harukata Takenaka, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, when explaining why Kishida won over Kono and two other challengers, Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda. "He can mediate between the government and the party, and he is most able to implement practical policy changes."

A divided public

Suga had taken office in September last year with overwhelming support from the LDP. He succeeded former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who stepped down for health reasons, and emphasized continuity from the previous government. However, the number of COVID-19 infections ballooned beyond expectations and the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games were held amid divided public opinion. The cabinet's approval rating plummeted, and Suga's support within the LDP, now anxious about the upcoming general election, evaporated. He was forced to step down after just one year at the helm.

Several factors contributed to the downfall of the Suga government. He never had a strong support base within the LDP and he was not a talented communicator. Most detrimental, however, was his failure to address Japan's structural issues, a fact made clear by the pandemic. With each wave of infection, the health care system was threatened with "collapse," even though Japan faced a relatively small number of serious cases and has many hospital beds. But no measures to restrict people's movement or activities, or to develop an emergency medical system, were put into place.

A health care worker cares for a COVID-19 patient at a hospital in Osaka. Ballooning infections and the decision to push ahead with the Tokyo Olympics fueled public anger in recent months.  (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

More recently, the number of infections has dropped, but the threat of the pandemic remains. While the state of emergency was lifted nationwide at the end of September, some worry that the winter will bring another wave of infections. COVID-19 booster shots are expected to start being distributed early next year.

The new government faces the immediate task of dealing with the pandemic. The Japanese economy is still far from achieving the Bank of Japan's 2% inflation goal. The conflict between the U.S. and China shows no signs of easing. There is no shortage of issues for Kishida to tackle as the new prime minister.

"Rather than assuming 'it will get better,' I will assume the worst and seize the initiative in implementing a thorough response," Kishida said on Sept. 2, laying out his plan to prioritize the pandemic as the new head of the LDP. "It will get better," was undoubtedly an implicit dig at the Suga government's pandemic response. As prime minister, Suga was criticized for being too optimistic about the virus when he said at an Aug. 25 news conference that the "light is beginning to shine clearly." Kishida, as if to differentiate himself from Suga, emphasized that he would "seize the initiative."

On the pandemic, Kishida promised to achieve the government's goal of fully vaccinating all those who wish to be inoculated by the end of November, and to spread the use of oral medications by the end of the year.

"As with seasonal influenza, the goal is to ensure that the regular health care system can handle the amount of cases and return to normal social and economic activity as soon as possible," he said. "This is living with the coronavirus, rather than eliminating it. It's coexistence with the virus. I want to make progress in restoring near-normal social and economic activity early in the new year, while dealing with the pandemic through the regular health care system."

Kishida, right, raises a toast during a party for the Kochikai, one of the oldest factions in the LDP, in 2019. (Photo by Toshiki Sasazu)

In addition to serving in prominent posts like foreign minister and LDP policy chief, Kishida is the head of the Kochikai, one of the oldest factions in the LDP (and now known as "the Kishida faction"). He has been floated as a candidate for Japan's top spot for some time. Some wanted him to challenge Abe in 2018, when the latter's second term as head of the LDP ended, but he declined to do so as he saw no chance of victory. In all media polls, he never cracked the top three as the most suitable candidate for prime minister until the LDP leadership election neared. Two other LDP leadership candidates were more popular with the public -- Kono, the aforementioned dynamic minister in charge of Japan's vaccine campaign, performed well with local LDP chapter voters, and Sanae Takaichi, a hawkish conservative who indicated she was open to the deployment in Japan of U.S. intermediate-range missiles, received enthusiastic support on social media.

Fathers and sons

Kishida, like most traditional Japanese politicians, was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both LDP politicians. But unlike Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso, whose political forebears won fierce battles to become prime minister, Kishida's father and grandfather had unremarkable political careers. They graduated from national universities, worked as bureaucrats and then became politicians, but they never held cabinet positions.

Kishida's ambition to become a politician sprang from his time in New York, where he spent his first three years of elementary school. His father, Fumitake, then an official at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, was posted to the U.S., and the young Kishida joined him there. When his class took a field trip to the zoo, the teacher told the students to hold hands. However, the young girl next to Kishida, who was white, felt uncomfortable and refused to hold his hand. At the time, he did not understand why. He later realized that it was his first encounter with racism, and that he wanted to get rid of such absurd thinking. It spurred him to aspire to a politics that emphasizes diversity, according to his book.

Kishida, second from top right, played second base and shortstop on his high school baseball team, an experience that made him a firm believer in the power of teamwork.    © Kyodo

After returning to Japan, Kishida studied at Kaisei High School, a prestigious institution that sends many of its graduates to Tokyo University, where his father studied. He played second base and shortstop on the school baseball team, and became a believer in the power of teamwork. However, he failed to pass Tokyo University's entrance exam three years running. He instead attended Waseda University, a private university in Tokyo, to study law. After graduating, he worked at the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan (now Shinsei Bank) for five years. As with many children of politicians, however, he ended up working as a secretary for his father, who had become a politician at a relatively young age.

When his father died in 1992, Kishida ran to replace him, winning election to the House of Representatives in 1993. From the start of his career, he was a member of the Kochikai, a group founded by former Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, who oversaw much of Japan's postwar reconstruction. Ikeda was also the right-hand man of Shigeru Yoshida, who was prime minister when Japan regained its sovereignty under the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951. In addition to Ikeda, the faction has produced several other prime ministers: Masayoshi Ohira, Zenko Suzuki and Kiichi Miyazawa.

Abe long saw Kishida as a potential successor, but that does not mean that Kishida will necessarily maintain the policies of the Abe government. He spoke of one major reform to the LDP's leadership structure at an Aug. 26 news conference when he announced his candidacy for the leadership -- party executives other than the president would be limited to a term of one year, with no more than three consecutive terms. Kishida said this would prevent concentrations of power and officials staying on through force of habit. He called for the replacement of Toshihiro Nikai, who has been LDP secretary-general for more than five years, and for more younger party members to take leadership posts. His goal is to accelerate generational turnover within the LDP.

A worker removes a poster after the LDP leadership election in Tokyo on Sept. 29. (Photo by Kai Fujii)

In his economic policies, Kishida has emphasized a shift away from neoliberalism, which focuses on growth through regulatory reform and has been a mainstay of LDP governments, including those of Abe and Suga, since the Junichiro Koizumi era. Abenomics spurred economic growth by weakening the yen and boosting the stock market, which expanded exports and investment by major companies. It was in line with "trickle-down economics," in which the rich become richer, and the wealth spreads to employees, small and medium-size businesses, and finally to the lower and middle-income brackets. Kishida wants to shift the benefits of economic growth to lower and middle-income groups more directly through redistributive policies.

Ryutaro Kono, chief economist at BNP Paribas Securities, said: "When it comes to the shift from 'neoliberalism' called for by Kishida, I agree with his idea of taxing investment income for redistribution policies. It is a fact that corporate profit-hoarding has become a drag on economic growth."

Kishida's economic outlook is deeply rooted in the idea of looking out for those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic. In the 1960s, Ikeda, the founder of the faction Kishida now leads, launched an "income-doubling plan" and advanced measures designed to enable people to feel the effects of Japan's rapid economic growth. Kishida campaigned under the slogan of a "Reiwa income-doubling plan," an idea that aims to make the middle class "feel affluent." He said he plans to expand support for education and housing costs, which have been a burden on households, and implement economic measures worth tens of trillions yen under an economic model that he refers to as "new Japanese capitalism."

In diplomacy and security matters, Kishida will face the pressing task of navigating relations with China. Historically, the faction Kishida leads has been known as the "dove faction," which favors relying on the U.S. for Japan's security while focusing on economic growth -- known as the "Yoshida Doctrine" after former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. Kishida has said: "There are some things that bother me about Japanese politics today. There is an emphasis on strong leadership, U.S.-centric diplomacy, and hawkishness. I don't deny the significance of each of these, but I believe that balance is important."

Despite this, during his four and a half years as foreign minister under Abe, Kishida inherited Abe's vision of a "free and open Indo-Pacific," and his belief in cooperating with other democracies.

"The international community is undergoing major changes, and authoritarian states are gaining more and more power," Kishida said in a recent interview, adding that measures to deal with an increasingly authoritarian China are needed. "I have a strong sense of crisis about this." He touched on the need for Japan to possess "enemy base strike capabilities," a euphemism for preemptive strikes, which are limited by the country's pacifist constitution, and said he wants to improve the country's defenses.

Members of the revamped Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, now known as the CPTPP, pose for an official picture after the signing ceremony in Santiago, Chile, in 2018. China and Taiwan have both applied to join the trade group.   © Reuters

"On defense, my impression is that he has a more pragmatic line than previous prime ministers," said Kayo Takuma, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University, "Possessing the capability to strike enemy bases is one policy option, but the question will be whether Japan can actually implement it."

China and Taiwan have both applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, previously known as TPP, which no longer includes the U.S. Japan, which took the lead in completing the deal, is once again facing the question of how much distance it should keep between itself and China. Meanwhile, an increasingly belligerent North Korea launched missiles into the Sea of Japan four times in September. Suga had little experience in diplomacy, and the pandemic brought most of Japan's diplomatic activities to halt during the past year. Kishida's abilities will therefore soon be put to the test, not only in addressing the pandemic but also in foreign and domestic affairs.

Newly elected Prime Minister Fumio Kishida poses with his cabinet members for a photo session in Tokyo on Oct. 4. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

The most important test for Kishida, however, will be the lower house election taking place on Oct. 31. In the last lower house election, in 2017, the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito won a landslide victory under Abe, taking over two-thirds of the chamber's seats. It will be difficult to replicate that feat in the upcoming election. Instead, the LDP is fighting to limit its losses. Kishida's government will be undercut as soon as it begins if he fails to produce positive results. Even if the government gets past the lower house election, thanks to the high approval ratings that typically come with new cabinets, the upper house election still looms next summer. The new government thus faces many hurdles before it can come into its own.

"Kishida came out on top in the first round of voting for the LDP presidency, leaving little room to question his victory," said Koji Nakakita, a professor at Hitotsubashi University. "His government could last for some time if he can address the pandemic and get past next year's upper house election. His government will also be more stable with the support of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former Finance Minister Taro Aso."

There is a well-known superstition in Japanese politics: Long governments are succeeded by short ones. It has been one year since the end of the Abe government, which was in place for a record length of time. Japan does not have the luxury of waiting through a series of short-lived governments to address its most pressing issues.

Additional reporting by Rieko Miki and Kosuke Takeuchi.

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