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1 October 2021

Fumio Kishida: Why Japan’s new prime minister has his work cut out

He’s loved by his party’s old guard, but Fumio Kishida wants to prove he’s different from his predecessors. Are voters listening?

By Kenji Hall

When a senior politician from Japan’s ruling party makes a show of listening to voters, you know there’s something amiss. Before Fumio Kishida assumed the ruling Liberal Democrat Party (LDP)’s top post on 29 September – all but guaranteeing that he becomes the country’s next prime minister – he seemed determined to prove that he was not out of step with the public. 

He held Zoom calls with restaurateurs and tourism businesses that had been gutted by the pandemic. On Twitter and YouTube, for an audience of thousands, he fielded questions about childhood poverty, regional diplomacy and the hit animated series Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. On 25 September, he joined an Instagram Live session with Eriko Imai, a first-term legislator in his party and former J-pop starlet. A little over a month ago, in front of TV cameras, Kishida held up a small, worn notebook that he said he’d been carrying around to document his meetings with families and small businesses. 

“My skill is that I listen well to others,” Kishida told reporters at a news conference after defeating three rivals for the LDP presidency. “I want to listen to what as many of our citizens have to say about our problems and carefully address each one.”

This is not a typical sound-bite from the LDP machine. The party has its own Byzantine dynamics (in the form of competing factions), picks its own influence-brokers and sets its own conservative agenda, mostly behind closed doors. For the past eight years and nine months, under former prime minister Shinzo Abe and his hand-picked successor, Yoshihide Suga, what the public wanted has rarely been a priority. (Kishida easily defeated Abe’s choice for LDP president, Sanae Takaichi, a former internal affairs and communications minister.)

Not any more. With rising voter dissatisfaction over its decision to go ahead with the Tokyo Olympics and its bungled response to the pandemic, the LDP-led government is now in a precarious position. By law, the party has to call a general election by November. As prime minister, Suga’s dismal public-approval ratings had LDP officials fretting about the possibility of election losses and an erosion of the ruling bloc’s majority – hence the shake-up that brought Kishida to power. On 4 October, parliament will vote on Kishida as the LDP’s choice for a new prime minister. The LDP-led bloc’s majority in the upper and lower houses makes his confirmation little more than a formality. 

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Kishida’s challenge is to convince voters before the elections that he can reboot the LDP – without going so far that he alienates the veteran-led factions of the party that endorsed him. A third-generation politician from Hiroshima who won his father’s seat in parliament in 1993, 64-year-old Kishida is widely viewed by the party’s old guard as a safe choice: an experienced and sincere, if somewhat bland, team-player whose moderate views make him unlikely to set a radical new course. He has held cabinet positions – he was the second-longest-serving foreign minister since the Second World War – and key senior party posts. In 2016, he helped organise Barack Obama’s visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the first to the city by a sitting US leader. 

Many of Kishida’s policy ideas are LDP classics: closer ties with the US, lower trade barriers and a more hawkish posture to counter China’s assertiveness. He’s vehemently against nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered submarines but is on the fence about whether married couples should be legally allowed to have separate surnames. Yet in small ways, Kishida has shown a willingness to break with his predecessors. Instead of focusing on the big spending, low interest rates and labour-market reforms that were intended – but have failed – to revive the economy, he favours “redistributing wealth”. In his 2020 book, Kishida Vision: From Division to Cooperation, he has written about reducing income disparities, raising salaries, and expanding government support for education and housing. He’s pledged to come up with an economic aid package worth “tens of trillions of yen” (hundreds of billions of pounds) for people who have struggled during the pandemic. 

Kishida has set an election goal of defending the ruling bloc’s majority in parliament. With its junior coalition partner, Komeito, the LDP controls 139 of 245 seats in the upper house and 304 of the 465-seat lower house. Barring scandal or some unforgivable gaffe, the LDP is unlikely to be ousted. (In the past 66 years, that’s only happened twice, for short periods.) None of the opposition parties offers a compelling alternative. Voters don’t get to choose who becomes prime minister, but they could still express their displeasure with the LDP by weakening the party’s grip on power. 

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As prime minister, Kishida has his work cut out. He isn’t one for rousing speeches, but he needs to energise the LDP’s rank and file. Wooing a younger generation of Japanese voters in their twenties and thirties could make a difference, but they’re among the least likely to vote. On social media, Kishida seems to be finding his voice, posting to hundreds of thousands of followers his on-the-fly meals alongside his earnest attempts to convey to the public that the LDP now cares about the issues that matter to people. For voters, there’s an element of faith involved in going with Kishida: they would have to believe that the LDP is ready for the change that its new leader says he’s pushing for. 

[See also: How the Olympics have thrown the future of Japan’s prime minister into doubt]