On September 29, Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which has led the country almost continuously (with two short breaks) since the mid 1950s of the last century, held party elections to its leader. In the last 10 years, the LDP, in coalition with the minority Komeito Party, whose ideology is essentially based on Buddhism, has held a majority in the country’s bicameral parliament.
The need for the party elections arose after the previous party leader, Yoshihide Suga, submitted his resignation on September 3 for reasons that have been discussed in a previous article by New Eastern Outlook. His resignation as party leader also entailed his departure from the post of Prime Minister.
Japan’s new Prime Minister must be elected (no later than a month after the resignation of the former one) in an extraordinary joint session of both houses of Parliament, which is scheduled for October 4. At least a week before this date, the ruling party was required to submit a new candidate for the parliamentary vote. The party chose 64-year-old Fumio Kishida, an experienced politician with extensive experience, having served in various positions in both government and parliament. Until now, the peak of his political career was his term as Minister of Foreign Affairs, a post which he held from 2012 to 2017.
While the highly complex procedure for electing a new party leader appears quite democratic, the apparatchiks in the LDP’s inner circle undoubtedly exercised a decisive influence on its final outcome. They were able to do this through members of parliament, whose “opinion” is much easier to manage than those of the local party representatives.
Up until the day of voting, the undisputed favorite among the four contenders was another, equally experienced politician, Taro Kono. As is clear from the table published in The Yomiury Shimbun, as early as September 20, Taro Kono was significantly ahead of Fumio Kishida, who was ranked second. This was despite the fact that the members of the LDP’s inner circle had a hidden weapon up their sleeves in the form of 118 undecided members of the National Diet (Japan’s Parliament), who they were keeping “in reserve”. It was that “reserve force” that played a decisive role in the second round of voting.
It is worth noting that Taro Kono had earlier served, with great success, as the Minister responsible for Japan’s COVID-19 vaccination program. One would have expected the sharp decline in the fourth (?) wave of the pandemic, which has been evident in the last few weeks, to have worked in his favor. But the LDP’s inner circle apparently decided that it would be better if the new party leader was completely unconnected with this toxic (both medically, and politically) issue. The Japanese, after all, are really sick of this subject. As, indeed, is everyone else.
In the LDP’s reasoning, mentioned above, “better” is to be understood in the context of the upcoming regular general elections to the lower house of parliament, which will be held in November. For the Party, a lot hangs on the elections – its parliamentary majority is at stake. If it loses its majority the new Prime Minister will only serve for two months, and the LDP as a whole will lose power after a continuous nine-year period in government.
As it is, on the balance of probabilities it seems likely that the LDP will win – although maybe not an easy victory – and thus continue the unbroken run of electoral successes achieved by Shinzo Abe, until recently the party leader and one of the most popular Japanese Prime Ministers of the last 150 years.
But there is no guarantee of such an outcome, especially in view of the serious defeats that the LDP has suffered in a number of local elections this year under Yoshihide Suga, Shinzo Abe’s successor. The most painful of these defeats was that of the LDP-backed candidate in the mayoral elections held on August 22 in Yokohama, Japan’s second most populous city. That defeat was the result of a “protest” vote, and indicated a sharp drop in the level of popular support for the party of the Cabinet of Ministers of Yoshihide Suga to a record low 26%.
In view of the above, the results of the upcoming general elections are far from certain, even though support for the opposition parties remains low.
As for Fumio Kishida’s politics, he is seen as a member of the LDP’s “moderate” wing – one of the several sub-groups within the party. “Moderate” is of course a relative term and needs to be understood in terms of the different shades of political positions represented by what is, as already stated, an right-wing and conservative party.
The party’s views on the most pressing problems facing the country today are expressed by The Yomiury Shimbun in the form of a table compiled based on the results of several public debates between all four candidates for the post of leader of the LDP. Interestingly, just a day before the vote, the newspaper displayed Taro Kono’s photograph in front of those of the other candidates.
As can be seen from the table, in the matter of the future of Japan’s energy sector (perhaps the most relevant issue for the world as a whole), Fumio Kishida positions himself in favor of the reinstatement of all the nuclear power stations that were were decommissioned after the Fukushima-1 disaster in 2011. But he also advocates the development of renewable energy sources.
One of the key in the transformation of Japan’s foreign policy relates to new developments in the role played by its military. The most radical innovation of the entire post-war period may be Japan’s final rejection of the “purely defensive” status of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF), which are now, in effect, the country’s Armed Forces. Japan’s government now has the power to use the Armed Forces in order to launch pre-emptive strikes on targets in neighboring countries, if an attack on Japanese facilities is anticipated from such targets (for example, according to intelligence data).
In fall 2020, shortly after his appointment, Nobuo Kishi, Japan’s current Defense Minister, spoke for the first time about the need to provide the SDF with the technical capabilities it requires. Since then, this question has been one of the most hotly contested issues in Japan’s domestic and foreign policy, and the object of close attention from Japan’s neighbors.
From the way he expressed his position, it is clear that Nobuo Kishi does not want to be forced to commit himself definitively on this controversial issue. The most hawkish position on the issue is held by Sanae Takaichi, who served as Minister for Administrative Reforms and Relations in the Shinzo Abe’s government in 2013.
In an interview with The Yomiury Shimbun given a week before the elections and devoted mainly to domestic political problems, when asked about views on the country’s defense, Fumio Kishida noted the need to strengthen Japan’s military and political alliance with the United States “and other countries that share universal values.” He also stressed the urgent need for Japan to participate in the QUAD bloc and cooperate on intelligence issues with the five English speaking countries that make up the Five Eyes alliance.
The US President has also stated that he “looks forward to working with Japan’s new prime minister to strengthen our [bilateral] cooperation in the years ahead”.
Immediately after the election of Fumio Kishida to the post of leader of the LDP, an article appeared in the Chinese Global Times, “expressing the hope” that this would not cause any further deterioration in bilateral relations. The article also pointed out the unprecedented focus on “China issues” in the speeches made by all four candidates for leadership of the LDP. The Global Times also pointed out uncompromising stance of Sanae Takaichi in relation to China. Sanae Takaichi won 188 votes in the first round of voting, some 60 votes less than Kishida, who ranked second.
Since Fumio Kishida, the eventual winner, served as head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry at the height of the Abe administration’s policy in relation to Russia, it would seem that Moscow should expect something like a renewal of that policy, with approximately the same starting positions. Those positions are likely to be based on a proposal to conclude a peace treaty, which would at least partially incorporate the terms of the 1855 Treaty of Shimoda which underlie Tokyo’s position in relation to what it refers to as the “Northern Territories Issue”.
In general, it is unlikely that there will be any noticeable changes in the current trends in Japan’s foreign policy under the new government. Neither in the next two months, nor after the upcoming general elections.
Unless, of course, the LDP’s run of election victories (three in a row in the last decade) finally comes to an end.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.