21.10.2022 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Fumio Kishida leads the Japanese government for a year

One year ago, on October 4, 2021, Fumio Kishida became the head of the government of one of the leading countries in the Indo-Pacific region, Japan. He took over after Yoshihide Suga, who had also led the Japanese government for a year, left the post.

One year is an almost magical number for prime ministers in Japan’s modern history, which dates back to the so-called “Meiji Restoration” that took place in the second half of the 19th century. Since then, it has been rather a rare thing for one person to hold the highest administrative post for a long period. Of these, the most recent was Shinzo Abe, who twice (in 2006-2007 and from late December 2012 to September 2020) led the country’s government. It was in Abe’s cabinet that Kishida served as foreign minister for four and a half years (a record for postwar Japan).

Therefore, it is only natural for the Japanese media to pay increased attention to the fact that his one-year term as prime minister has already come to an end. This also begs the equally natural question: what are the prospects for the experienced politician, who has held other important government posts and positions in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, to continue in that post for any length of time? Especially since even before the deadline, a wake-up call was rung prompting Fumio Kishida to resort to a radical reshaping of the cabinet.

The immediate cause was a major scandal that was triggered by some revealed ties to the (little-known earlier) Unification Church involving both Shinzo Abe who died on July 8, and his assassin. A number of other ministers were found to be in various relationships with the UC, as were almost half of the LDP parliamentary faction. The “purge” of ministers implicated in such ties was incomplete, and the rating of the new government continued to fall.

However, the author continues to believe that the real reason for the generally negative public appraisal of the final year in office of the late Shinzo Abe, his successor Yoshihide Suga and now Fumio Kishida, is due to the exacerbation of global problems. The nature of their development can hardly be influenced in any appreciable way, even by the government of a country such as Japan.

First and foremost these include the intertwined set of factors accompanying the Covid-19 pandemic and the decline in global economic activity. It should be stressed that the “Covid” restrictions that plague both the average person and entire economic sectors are not at all far-fetched (as Covid skeptics believe). It is enough to look at the graph of the next “wave” of infections of the “new mutations” of this disease.

In particular, the huge number of those infected at its peak (in August of this year) has forced tens of thousands of patients with not only mild but also moderate disease to be placed on “home-distance” treatment. This treatment regime is now associated with the deaths of nearly 900 patients in the same month of August alone.

Meanwhile, the government has become concerned about preparing already for the next “wave” of Covid-19 outbreaks, which is expected with the coming of winter. The inevitable seasonal flu will be superimposed on this new “wave.”

But in the meantime, taking advantage of the downturn in the previous “wave,” the government is easing a number of restrictions on the movement and contacts of its own citizens, as well as on border crossings by foreign tourists. It also takes into account the fact that tourism has always been one of the main stimuli for the functioning and growth of small and medium-sized businesses (including hotels, fast food outlets, sightseeing hiking and transport routes). This is why the renewal of the government’s Go to Travel program is being considered. This was something Yoshihide Suga did not dare to do at the time, fearing a spike in diseases and a disruption of the planned 2020 Summer Olympics.

But in the economic sphere, there are much more serious problems, for reasons that are already directly linked to the main aspects of contemporary international politics. These problems are an inevitable consequence of the comprehensive confrontation with China and Russia that Washington is dragging all its allies into. In this respect, the Japanese economy is following similar trends to that of the EU. The consequence is a rise in the price of energy and basic consumer goods, which is causing understandable sentiment amongst the population.

But at a much faster rate than in Europe, the yen is depreciating against the dollar. While in January this year it was at a ratio of 115 to 1, at the end of the summer one dollar was already worth about 140 yen, and on October 13 the ratio was 147 to 1. This is despite an intervention three weeks earlier by the Bank of Japan totaling $19 billion. This once again demonstrates the global reasons behind the ongoing processes in the economies of even the world’s leading powers.

Among other things, this may be a reason behind the “uncertain” assessment of Fumio Kishida’s speech in parliament at the beginning of October on the general political course of the country.

But the intention to include the issue of ensuring the functioning of key economic sectors under extreme conditions in the new version of the National Security Strategy being prepared is becoming increasingly clear. For the first time in the entire post-war period, a ten-year NSS was adopted in December 2013. During this time, the instrument has been amended in line with rapidly changing circumstances. At the end of this year, again, a completely revised version of the NSS should be prepared.

The main conceptual challenge to be addressed by the instrument’s drafters is the need to reconcile the long-standing aspiration to give Japan’s Self-Defense Forces a “conventional” appearance (providing for a preemptive strike capability) and the continuing constitutional obstacle to this objective. And despite the obvious doom of the “anti-war” Article 9 of the current Constitution, its abandonment will not happen any time soon. That is, it will require a serious organizational effort and will be stretched over time.

In this regard, there was a notable announcement in late September of the formation of an advisory group of ten experts, headed by Kenichiro Sasae, former Ambassador to the United States, “at the Prime Minister’s Office.” As this report suggests, the said group will be in charge of virtually all major aspects of the construction of qualitatively new SDFs. In particular, the group’s experts are likely to tackle the problem of the Japanese business “flight” from the national defense industry as a consequence of the same economic problems.

The overall focus of Japan’s new phase of military buildup is unquestionable and is defined by the word “China.” However, for reasons of maintaining some “political correctness” towards a great neighbor and (importantly) a major trade and economic partner, this word is unlikely to appear often in the future NSS. And apparently it will be much rarer than the phrase “North Korean threat.”

In this connection, it seems appropriate to express the author’s opinion as to the source of the latter. North Korea does not appear to be an alien, but rather an organic part of the political situation of the entire Northeast Asian sub-region. The very fact that this country is mentioned allows all the players in Northeast Asia without exception to solve important (for them) problems.

For example, how else would Washington explain its continued military and political presence on the Korean peninsula? Now this is done, as they say, in a snap of its fingers. Here it is, the “aggressive Pyongyang regime” that violates almost all the “rules” that the (supposedly) “civilized world” adheres to. The phenomenon of the “North Korean threat” enables Japan’s leadership to address the same problem of “normalization,” i.e. the abandonment of all defense restrictions.

In this regard, it is hard to ignore the strange “timeliness” of North Korea’s recent missile tests, as well as information leaks about Pyongyang’s impending resumption of nuclear testing. Various aspects of the same “North Korean threat” were covered in a speech by Minister of Defense Yasukazu Hamada to a parliamentary committee in mid-October.

In general, the Japanese Cabinet, headed by Fumio Kishida, still has something to offer the common man as its product. It’s another thing to evaluate it. It has maintained a steady downward trend and has already reached a dangerous level of 35%.

A few per cent further down and it would be impossible to vouch for the future of Fumio Kishida’s premiership.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.