CAN KISHIDA TRANSFORM HIS FACTION ON KEY ISSUES?
‟This moment marks a new start in the real sense of the word. I feel very strongly about my responsibilities as prime minister and pledge to pursue them with strong resolve.”
With these remarks on October 4, Fumio Kishida started his first news conference as the 100th prime minister of Japan succeeding Yoshihide Suga. It was a commendable pledge in light of the tough set of challenges Japan is faced with on all fronts, both at home and overseas. Unwavering strength and determination will be needed to address each of these challenges one by one.
Kishida decided right after taking office to hold a Lower House election on October 31—at least a week earlier than speculated. In fact, when to dissolve the Diet and hold a general election is the exclusive prerogative of an incumbent prime minister. So the new prime minister was free to do what he thought best as regards the timing of the election. But it is difficult to see what else he plans to do going forward. His choices for key posts in his ruling party and his cabinet have not given us a clear indication of his vision for the nation.
What are the prospects for Kishida’s new ruling coalition? Political journalist Fumito Ishibashi had this to say on October 1 as a guest of my Friday night “Genron” Internet TV news show:
“Let’s first explore how former prime minister Shinzo Abe managed to create a very powerful political base for his administration, called ‘the strongest ever’ by the media. Two factors were involved. Firstly, in tandem with Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, Abe kept a close check on the middle-of-the-road conservative forces within his party. Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga put a check on some younger LDP legislators with a tendency to flip-flop, such as then ministers Taro Kono and Shinichiro Koizumi. Because Abe was able to constantly keep an eye on nearly 90% of LDP lawmakers under the framework he created, his administration managed to remain ‘the strongest ever.” But from what I see in Kishida’s formation of his cabinet and decisions involving party posts, the power structure Abe painstakingly created appears to be crumbling. I think Kishida is walking on thin ice now.”
Ishibashi was referring to Kishida’s pick of the LDP’s secretary-general in particular, explaining:
“Kishida tapped (former economy minister) Akira Amari to be the secretary-general. He was at the forefront of the campaign to get rid of former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. In point of fact, Amari was the first LDP heavyweight who said publicly that the LDP wouldn’t have a fighting chance if Suga continued to head the party. I’m sure Suga will never forget that. By quickly naming Amari the secretary-general, Kishida has in effect cut ties with Suga. And the outlook for Kishida being able to create a workable system of control within the party with the backing of Abe, Aso, and Suga looks grim. Unless Kishida takes note of this crucial point, I feel his administration will be in jeopardy.”
Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori had an intriguing thing to say in this regard in the November issue of the conservative monthly Seiron magazine. When Kishida visited him last month to report on his decision to run for LDP president, Mori revealed that he asked Kishida who he had in mind as party secretary-general. Faltering momentarily, Kishida replied that he had yet to make up his mind. Mori further stated, according to Seiron:
“Of course you haven’t. I don’t think you can readily say who when you don’t know how the respective factions would act. But I suppose you have in mind at least who the chief cabinet secretary will be.”
But Kishida replied he didn’t have any particular person in mind, according to Mori. The chief cabinet secretary is the pivot of the cabinet and the party secretary-general that of the ruling party. These posts form the backbone of any administration. It would not be too much to say that the individuals assigned to these posts will determine the fate of the Kishida administration. And yet, Kishida apparently had been unable to decide whom he would assign the posts to even after deciding to run for president of the LDP. Kishida subsequently named Amari chief cabinet secretary. His decision was viewed by political pundits as proof of his lack of ability to recognize the subtleties of factional politics within his party.
These observers also started suggesting that the Kishida administration was considerably under the control of Amari, not Kishida—a viewpoint that bodes ill for his cabinet, his party, and the nation.
But there are also some positive aspects about Kishida’s other decisions. For instance, he tapped the conservative Ms Sanae Takaichi, one of the three other candidates who vied to succeed Suga, to chair the LDP’s Policy Research Council (PRC).
Seiron editor Takashi Aritomo, another guest on my news show last Friday, explained the significance of this move:
“The ‘Kochikai’ faction Kishida heads—one of the four leading factions within the LDP—strongly wished to not be in a bind as a result of Takaichi visiting Yasukuni Shrine as a cabinet minister. That was actually the reason behind Kishida appointing her as head of the PRC—one of the four top party positions. This decision may create a chance to solidify the conservative support base of the LDP.”
Arimoto notes “the strong power” given Takaichi as head of the PRC as the reason for this.
The LDP is known for the vigorous activities of its varied committees, whose members conduct regular study group sessions from early in the morning, engaging in heated discussions of pertinent policies. LDP legislators have traditionally been nurtured through these discussions. The head of the PRC has the authority to select committee members as well as chairpersons, including the head of its influential Research Committee. Because formulating policies depends significantly on who runs which committee, Arimoto explains, Takaichi is expected to be able to take the entire ruling party in the direction of more conservative policies by putting on hold those of the liberal factions that have significantly influenced the party in the past.
Takaichi is also responsible for determining LDP campaign promises in preparation for the October 31 Lower House election. Put bluntly, no campaign promise will see the light of day without Takaichi approving it. In view of controversial issues such as dual surnames for married couples and the LGBT bill the party has been tackling, conservative forces that constitute the LDP’s support base feel more at ease with Takaichi presiding over the PRC. At a time when serious concern exists over Kishida possibly leaning toward his faction’s traditional liberalism, Takaichi’s conservative values are of crucial importance.
Being Good Listener Isn’t Enough
As is well known, Japan is faced with a harsh international environment, with China incessantly violating our waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East Asia Sea and daily flying dozens of fighters over the Strait of Taiwan. Instead of turning a blind eye to these provocations, Japan must hurry to build solid deterrence against the threat of China. For that purpose, we must first and foremost swiftly strengthen the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and seek a closer alliance with the US. Will Kishida be up to the task? In order to live up to this mission, Kishida must by all means say no to his faction’s liberal tradition of shying away from military matters.
Let us briefly go over the evolution of Kishida’s faction. The faction’s roots can be traced to the late Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida (1948-54), who signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951 preceding Japan’s regaining independence in April the following year. Although his military advisor, former Lieutenant General of the Imperial Army Eiichi Tatsumi, proposed time and again that Japan should revise its “peace” constitution and rearm, Yoshida continued to turn him down. In November 1964, three years before his demise, Yoshida is known to have bowed deeply to Tatsumi, confessing he “seriously regretted” having failed to take his advice.
Kochikai was formally formed by Hayato Ikeda in 1957. Elected prime minister in 1960, Ikeda compared a Japan that denied itself the right to arm to a eunuch and deplored the sad state of Japan being without a full-fledged armed force. Despite the fact that Yoshida and Ikeda both recognized the need for Japan to possess military capability, they failed to incorporate the universally honored fundamental principle of national security in their domestic policies.
Another prime minister from Kochikai, Zenko Suzuki, even went to the extent of stating that the term “alliance” in a joint communique released following his summit with President Ronald Regan in Washington on May 8,1981 had “no military connotation.”
What would become of Japan’s security if there were no security treaty with the US, or if our alliance had “no military connotation”? It has been the tradition of Kishida’s Kochikai faction to turn a blind eye to the harsh reality of the world and cling to a fictional peace.
However, as head of a 48-member faction, Kishida pledged in the last election to revise our constitution and professed his recognition of the need to bolster the JSDF. As for the need for Japan to acquire the ability to strike enemy bases as a means of deterring ballistic missiles aimed at Japan, Kishida also stated: “I believe retaining such capacity as deterrence deserves careful consideration.”
Words uttered by politicians carry serious implications. As prime minister, Kishida must put his words into action. He must transform himself into a prime minister exhibiting a firm resolve and quick action beyond just being a national leader who claims to be a good listener. Only by breaking the liberal tradition of Kochikai that has shunned military matters, will Kishida be able to form the foundation on which he can fulfill his election promises.
(Translated from ‘Renaissance Japan’ column no. 970 in the October 14, 2021 issue of The Weekly Shincho)