Can Japan rise above faction politics and become the 'bridge to the world' under new PM Kishida?

Fumio Kishida became the new Japanese prime minister despite a relatively weak political base. This shows that faction politics within the Liberal Democratic Party still provided some measure of stability in influencing outcomes. However, public opinion has landed on the side of wanting a leader with the gumption and vision to implement reforms and improve the plight of the Japanese people. But will this new administration be a force for change as the people want, or will the Japanese government go back to the days of having a new prime minister each year? Japan-based academic Zhang Yun takes us through.
Fumio Kishida, Japan's prime minister, center, during a group photograph with his new cabinet members at prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, on 4 October 2021. (Stainislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/Bloomberg)
Fumio Kishida, Japan's prime minister, center, during a group photograph with his new cabinet members at prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, on 4 October 2021. (Stainislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/Bloomberg)

On 29 September 2021, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) elected former Japanese foreign minister and LDP Policy Research Council chairman Fumio Kishida as its new leader. After he was elected in parliament as Japan’s 100th prime minister on 4 October, he swiftly called for a general election to be held on 31 October. Will Kishida’s new leadership be a long-term stable political power for domestic governance, or will it be another short-lived government like Yoshihide Suga’s? Will Japanese politics go back to the instability of having a new PM each year, as it did between 2006 and 2012?

In terms of foreign relations, will China-Japan relations under Kishida move out of the current low point, or will they get worse, or even become adversarial? Of course, it is too early to say for sure, but these core questions need to be prepared for. And analysing the structural factors behind Kishida’s leadership win is the key to understanding Japanese domestic politics and diplomacy under Kishida.

The complexities behind the new Kishida leadership

This LDP election might well be a major turning point in Japanese politics —  it is the result of interactions and synergies between faction politics within the LDP and public opinion.

Taro Kono, who was frontrunner among the candidates in most public opinion polls before the LDP election, gained fewer votes from LDP parliamentarians than fellow candidates Kishida and Sanae Takaichi, demonstrating the great influence of former PM Shinzō Abe, who had supported Takaichi in the election. In this sense, traditional LDP faction politics seems to have won out.

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Fumio Kishida (centre) stands on the stage with outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and fellow candidates, Seiko Noda, Sanae Takaichi and Taro Kono after winning the Liberal Democrat Party leadership election in Tokyo, Japan, 29 September 2021. (Carl Court/Pool via Reuters)

Analyses from Europe and the US criticised this as a reflection of the hold that age-old faction politics has over Japanese democracy. However, there is logic to the existence of LDP’s faction politics, in that it has brought stability to the LDP’s internal management. While several young members did have something to say about Genro politics — where elder statesmen have a lot of influence — and strongly pushed for Taro Kono, they did not pull out of faction politics.

The LDP’s choice of Kishida is the embodiment of the stability and continuity of faction politics, an example of the mentality of “stability”. However, Kishida’s win does not mean a victory for traditional faction politics. The fact that Taro Kono gained 45% of the votes from LDP party members and fraternity members means that he is popular among the people and they have expectations of him.

While Japan can be said to have the lowest rate of Covid-19 infections and deaths among developed countries, the people are unhappy about governance issues like the government’s repeated announcements of a state of emergency and slow vaccinations, and are highly distrustful of Suga’s communication and leadership capabilities.

This is why support for the Cabinet fell below 30% in August, and Suga decided to back out of the running. The people want a young politician with leadership ability to lead Japan out of its plight, and not an administrative head decided by LDP Genro politics. This is in fact a clear indication of public sentiment tending towards “change”, and Kono’s image fits this desire for reform.

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People receive extra editions of a newspaper reporting former Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida won in a ruling party leadership election, paving the way for him to replace Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Tokyo, Japan, 29 September 2021. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

Kishida is clear that if he wants popular support, he has to satisfy the LDP’s faction politics while showing himself to be a reformer. He was the first of the four candidates to announce his candidacy, and boldly proposed that senior party leaders would serve for one year each term, to a maximum of three consecutive terms. This is in fact a commitment to change Genro politics, and a positive response to calls by younger parliamentary members to reform the LDP.

Kishida’s new administration can be said to be a product of faction politics in the LDP and public sentiment, and Kishida’s domestic governance and diplomacy will depend on balancing these two forces.

Strengthening the political base of the new Kishida administration

It can be said that the factions of former PM Shinzō Abe and current deputy PM Taro Aso provided major pushes in Kishida’s win, which can be seen as an example of the stability provided by the LDP’s faction politics. Conversely, Kishida’s own political base is relatively weak.

And for the people, if there is nothing new about the new Kishida administration, it will be seen as just a proxy Cabinet. So, while Kishida inherits the domestic and foreign policies of Abe and Suga, he also needs to have his own style to balance and coordinate continuity and reform. How can he truly build up his authority within the party and establish trust among the people? The biggest test will be the election of the House of Representatives (lower house) on 31 October, and the election of the House of Councillors (upper house) in July 2022.

One important reason that Abe was able to hold office for seven years and eight months was that he built up authority within the party over six election victories in both houses of the Diet.

...in the next year or so, the main priority of the Kishida administration will be domestic.

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Lawmakers cast their ballots for the nomination of Japan's prime minister during an extraordinary session at the lower house of parliament in Tokyo, Japan, on 4 October 2021. (Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg)

There is basically no doubt that the LDP will win the lower house election on 31 October — the question is whether there will be fewer seats won. And next year’s upper house election will depend on the governance over the next six months or so. If the Covid-19 situation is unstable and there is insufficient leadership, support may slip as it did with the previous Cabinet.

If that happens, there may be a sharp drop in the number of seats won in the upper house election, or even a “twisted parliament”, where opposition seats outnumber those of the ruling party, which would severely weaken the base of the party leader. So, in the next year or so, the main priority of the Kishida administration will be domestic.

In terms of the economy, he has already pledged to draw up an economic stimulus package worth tens of trillions of yen, which is actually a continuation of the first two arrows of “Abenomics”, namely an aggressive monetary policy and flexible fiscal consolidation. But the problem is, although Abenomics boosted stock prices, the general public felt that the benefits were limited, and the pandemic just made such sentiments even stronger.

And this is the reason why Kishida proposed a revision of neoliberal economic policies and vowed to increase income and improve wealth redistribution. Whether “Kishidanomics” can be put forward to give Japan’s middle-class a sense of reform and anticipation would be especially crucial to gaining public support.

Challenges and opportunities for China-Japan relations

Similarly, Kishida’s diplomatic policy would also be governed by the two rationales above. From the perspective of continuity, he would inherit the basic principles of Abe and Suga’s diplomacy, policies and direction, and prioritise the stabilisation of its alliance with the US, followed by Southeast Asia. These are already established and relatively easier to do.

Northeast Asia diplomacy mainly involving China-Japan relations and Japan-South Korea relations would likely be put on the agenda following the upper house election next year. Besides, it remains to be seen if Japan will first seek to improve Japan-South Korea relations or China-Japan relations.

...there is little room for manoeuvre in Japan’s China policy. Besides, there is a need for Japan, as a US ally, to fall in line with the latter’s grand strategy.

Pedestrians walk on a street and watch a live TV broadcast of Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announcing the lift of the coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo's Shinjuku area on 28 September 2021. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP)
Pedestrians walk on a street and watch a live TV broadcast of then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announcing the lift of the coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo's Shinjuku area on 28 September 2021. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP)

South Korea is about to hold its presidential elections, and Kishida was one of the main decision makers when the Japan-South Korean comfort women deal was struck some years ago. The US has also been trying to mediate between Japan and South Korea and hopes that both countries can settle their dispute soon. The trilateral cooperation among the US and its two largest allies in Northeast Asia — Japan and South Korea — is of vital importance to the US.

In terms of its China policy, the Biden administration has been strengthening its alliances since it was inaugurated. In the Indo-Pacific area, it strengthened its bilateral alliances with Japan and Australia, and recently established a trilateral security partnership AUKUS with the UK and Australia, on top of the existing Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between the US, India, Japan and Australia, in an apparent attempt to encircle eastern China. At the same time, the Biden administration is also attacking China on the grounds of human rights and democracy.

Against this backdrop, there is little room for manoeuvre in Japan’s China policy. Besides, there is a need for Japan, as a US ally, to fall in line with the latter’s grand strategy. Also, Kishida is Japan’s main proponent of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, and has also vowed to appoint a prime ministerial aide to monitor the Uighur human rights situation.

The high-level appointments within the LDP reflect the political power of the factional camps of Abe and others. But Kishida’s own political base is not strong and his ability to restrain top party and Cabinet members is not yet known. Hence, after politicians like Sanae Takaichi take up important positions in the party, their actions and speech about historical, territorial and Taiwan issues may increase the level of friction or even confrontation in China-Japan relations.

...how he innovates while imbibing tradition, especially in terms of improving and rebuilding China-Japan relations, will win him extra points both within the party and in gaining public support.

People cross a street while a Shinkansen leaves the city in Tokyo's Shimbashi area on 1 October 2021. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)
People cross a street while a Shinkansen leaves the city in Tokyo's Shimbashi area on 1 October 2021. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

But at the same time, as most Japanese voters seek the middle ground, this in itself creates a certain restraining effect. For example, only about 10% of respondents replied that they are concerned with constitution revisions during the LDP presidential election polls. Back when Abe won a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet, he did not manage to revise the constitution. Will Kishida marshall political resources to achieve this when his political base becomes stable?

While Japan has said that it will not restrict itself to a defence cap of 1% of its GDP, since Kishida has just pledged to inject tens of trillions of yen into stimulating the economy within the year, people will find it hard to accept a huge increase in defence expenditure. Moreover, as China and Japan are highly economically interdependent, decoupling completely from China is not only impossible but also damaging to Japan’s interests.

Also, if Kishida is able to win two elections and stabilise his political base within the party, how he innovates while imbibing tradition, especially in terms of improving and rebuilding China-Japan relations, will win him extra points both within the party and in gaining public support.

A bridge to the world? 

If the three pillars of Japan’s foreign policy — Japan’s United Nations diplomacy, the Japan-US alliance, and Japan’s Asian diplomacy — only serve to strengthen the Japan-US alliance, then it would imply that Kishida’s foreign policy is only that of inheritance and not of innovation.

...if Japan can act as a bridge between China and the US and between other countries, this is the international positioning that is most aligned with its national interests.

Trains travelling on three different rail lines are seen at dusk near Ochanomizu station in Tokyo, Japan, on 26 September 2021. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)
Trains travelling on three different rail lines are seen at dusk near Ochanomizu station in Tokyo, Japan, on 26 September 2021. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

As Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister, Kishida understands this more than anybody else. This is also the reason why Kishida has always mentioned that Japan should act as a bridge to the world — if Japan can act as a bridge between China and the US and between other countries, this is the international positioning that is most aligned with its national interests. In this sense, the “third-party market cooperation mechanism” formed between China and Japan in Abe’s era is actually a potential platform for Japan to act as a bridge to the world.

I am not overly optimistic or pessimistic about China-Japan relations under Kishida’s regime. It is necessary to actively maintain various existing communication channels, and also to explore the possibility of new channels to gather momentum and wait for the best time to improve China-Japan relations.

China and Japan will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic ties between both countries in September next year. Japan’s upper house election will be held in July. We can remain cautiously optimistic about China-Japan relations.

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