17 January, 2022
By Luke Austin – Research Assistant
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida won the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership election initiated on 29th September, practically ensuring that he became Japan’s 100th prime minister on 4th October. A general election followed on 31st October, and contrary to predictions derived from preliminary polls, the LDP retained their majority in parliament and the left-wing opposition lost ground despite an agreed joint front between the two largest opposition parties. The populist right-wing Japan Innovation Party (JIP/Nippon Ishin no Kai) gained an impressive 30 seats, bolstered by support in its native Osaka.
Kishida has, on one hand, described himself as “a liberal” and as “dovish”. This side is particularly prominent in Kishida’s dealings with matters relating to nuclear non-proliferation (NNP). Kishida is a native of Hiroshima, the atomic bombing of which in 1945 caused it to become a powerful element of post-war collective Japanese pacifist identity and, subsequently, an impediment to Japanese discussions over the acquisition of a nuclear deterrent. Kishida has mentioned his Hiroshima roots in several speeches related to NNP, notably at the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) where he expressed his desire for “a world without nuclear weapons”. Perhaps rather fittingly, it was then-foreign minister Kishida who accompanied Abe and then-US President Barack Obama during the latter’s visit to Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Dome in May 2016. It was also reportedly due to Kishida’s insistence on the G7 Foreign Ministerial meeting being held in Hiroshima beforehand that this decision was taken.
However, it can be inferred that Kishida displays a hawkish approach towards other issues. So far, Kishida has referred to three distinct threats: China, North Korea and COVID-19. Kishida’s approach to China is somewhat more nuanced than that of his predecessors. Despite his origins in the Kōchikai (a liberal, pro-China LDP faction), the message and tone of Kishida’s recent statements about China have changed. First, Kishida has outright refused to attend the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in recognition of China’s mistreatment of the Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang. Kishida has also advocated for Taiwan’s attendance at meetings of the World Health Organisation, and he welcomed the prospect of Taiwan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Not only has the nature of Kishida’s statements on China changed, but he has started to actively initiate what appears to be a stricter China policy. On 26th November, the cabinet approved an increase of $7 billion to Japan’s defence budget, with Kishida justifying this increase by pointing to the region’s “worsening security environment”. The following day, Kishida’s first troop review took place at Camp Asaka north of Tokyo: here he stated his intentions to consolidate the Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) against Chinese and North Korean ambitions and for the JSDF to acquire a capability to strike enemy bases.
Kishida’s stance towards North Korea has also visibly hardened in the face of an increasing threat. Following North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile on 19th October, Kishida announced that Japan’s National Security Council (NSC) will consider procuring strike capabilities against enemy bases in response to imminent attacks, explicitly referring to “North Korea’s striking progress in nuclear and missile-related technology”.
With regards to COVID-19, the emergence of the new “Omicron” strain has proved to be something of a baptism of fire for Kishida in the initial stage of his term as prime minister. Stringent border checks were swiftly introduced, leading to praise from some but also to outbursts of frustration and anger towards the new administration from exchange students, visa holders, foreign residents as well as Japanese nationals living overseas. Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has reported an increase in the number of Omicron patients identified at airport quarantine checks: most of them are reported to be asymptomatic. Furthermore, research carried out by scientists at Kyoto University concluded that the Omicron variant is 4.2 times more transmissible than the Delta variant. This, along with Japan’s engagement in vaccine diplomacy, is perhaps something of an indicator that Japan is actively participating in the global struggle with coronavirus.
One explanation for this shift is that this hawkish posture does not necessarily reflect Kishida’s own intentions, but rather those of the so-called “3A” troika of the LDP: former Prime Minister Abe, LDP Vice President Tarō Asō and LDP tax commission head Amari Akira. Then again, it is largely the 3A to which Kishida owes the success of his own election campaign and his appointment to the prime ministership. This is particularly credible on the grounds that roughly half of both Kishida’s first and second cabinets consists of political novices, which in turn indicates the potentially high policy influence of the 3A. Another potential reason for this hawkish shift is the unprecedented success enjoyed by the JIP in the recent general election: with their increased number of seats in the Diet, it is predicted that this right-wing party could combine forces with the LDP and its junior coalition partner Kōmeitō in order to enact extensive amendments to Japan’s constitution, particularly Article 9. It is just as likely that a combination of these two factors continue to influence Kishida’s hawkish turn.
Kishida clearly pursues deviation from previous economic policies. Perhaps so as to signal a move away from the Abenomics path followed by his two predecessors, Kishida has announced his intentions for the foundation of a “new capitalism”: here the emphasis appears to be on the redistribution of Japan’s wealth, an attempt to address what has been perceived to be a widening gap between rich and poor that has been exacerbated by Abenomics. Due to Japan’s somewhat limited military capabilities, changes in Japan’s economic policy will impact its foreign policy, owing to Japan’s foreign policy still in large part being directed along economic, rather than military lines. Even then, it has been doubted by many that Kishida will really enact any serious changes, instead considering his criticism of Abenomics a cynical ploy to win votes ahead of the general election. Second, Kishida’s devotion to economic reform may help to achieve a balance between politico-military and economic cooperation with Japan’s allies: take India, for example. With both Japan and India being members of the Quadrilateral security dialogue (the “Quad”), it has been suggested that Japan could further consolidate economic ties with India by relocating Japanese companies based in China to India (with compensation already being offered by the Japanese government) while representing India’s interests in formats such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Kishida’s term as foreign minister under Abe saw unprecedented levels of Japanese ODA to India, perhaps indicating to what extent Kishida values Japan’s bilateral relations with India.
Although Kishida may possess his own intentions and attempt to enact some degree of reform, as could be potentially embodied in his “new capitalism”, he is still very much dependent on both intra-party (i.e., the 3A and LDP factions) and inter-party (JIP and Kōmeitō) structures. This is not Kishida’s only weakness. His indecisiveness has already bubbled to the surface, as shown by his unpredictable manoeuvring around the issue of benefits to children aged up to 18: whereas in November the Prime Minister originally proposed the payment of half of the total sum in cash before later paying the rest in vouchers, within a month this scheme was replaced with lump cash payments and attracted criticism, notably from the CDP. Perhaps even more concerning is the revelation recently published in the Asahi Shimbun that the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) has overstated data received from the construction industry at a rate of 10,000 entries per year since 2013, a practice that could well be in violation of Japanese law. Furthermore, while the impact on gross domestic product (GDP) of this manipulation is considered to be small, it has nevertheless cast doubts on the reliability of data used by economists and investors to study trends in the Japanese economy. This prompted an apology from Kishida, who stressed the importance of “making efforts to ensure this never happens again”. While Kishida’s direct involvement in this data manipulation is far from likely, the LDP’s approval ratings are taking a premature and profound hit.
It seems that Kishida’s prioritisation of certain foreign policy tangents i.e., China and North Korea reflect something of a “selective hawkism”. Japan’s policies towards China and Taiwan are unlikely to change due to the importance placed by Japan on its alliance with the United States. At the same time, there are his dovish positions on matters such as NPP as well as bilateral relations with states with which Japan has been engaged in diplomatic spats, such as South Korea. Kishida discussed issues such as wartime compensation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in as early as mid-October. Had Kōno, for example, been elected, it is more difficult to imagine such steps being taken. This is especially so in Kōno’s case, as in July 2019 he infamously subjected South Korean ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo to a strongly worded outburst over South Korean demands reparations for the forced conscription of Koreans into labour by Japan during the Second World War.
Kishida’s predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, lasted in office for merely a year. Hence, some have claimed that Japanese politics is returning to the so-called “revolving door politics” of the late 2000s and early 2010s, characterised by six prime ministers entering and leaving the Kantei within six years. The general consensus agrees that this is a trend to which Japanese politics should not return, as it could lead to increased political instability amid the COVID-19 pandemic and US-China competition. How long Kishida remains in office depends on the potentially uncomfortable choices he will have to make: as the moderate leader of a conservative-dominated party, either his old dovishness will alienate the LDP right or his new hawkishness will alienate the Japanese public.