And now what? Japan’s general election

Written by Sterling Content
October 15, 2021


Written by Sterling Content
October 15, 2021

The countdown to Japan’s October 31 election is underway, with former foreign minister  Fumio Kishida winning the recent party poll to become leader, and therefore, Prime Minister. Kishida leads his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) into the lower house poll after successfully defeating three candidates: Taro Kono, former administrative reform minister; Sanae Takaichi, former internal affairs minister, and Seiko Noda, LDP executive acting secretary-general.

A day after the LDP election, on September 30, the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan and The Japan Society of the UK co-hosted a webinar examining the party leadership battle and its implications for Japan and the world.

Hosted by former editor-in-chief of The Economist and Chair of The Japan Society Bill Emmott, the expert panel featured journalist Keiko Iizuka of Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun and Seiji Inada, Japan country representative at Eurasia Group.

Introducing the event, Emmott noted that Kishida “like so many predecessors is the scion of a political dynasty, who went to primary school in Queens in New York, and who served as foreign minister in [former Japanese Prime Minister] Shinzo Abe’s second government from 2012. Kishida has been described in the media as a continuity candidate, a safe pair of hands to guide the party into the coming lower house election, despite being less popular with voters than his chief rival, Taro Kono.”


Kono’s loss explained

Iizuka, who has served as senior political writer at Japan’s top-selling daily and now presents a nightly news programme, “News in Depth (Shinso News)” on the firm’s BS4 TV channel, explained that Kishida won not only through his own efforts, but also due to campaign mistakes by his main rival, Kono.

Firstly, the resignation of former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga helped ease the sense of crisis among LDP lawmakers, who had feared losing their seats at the upcoming election.

“Suga’s resignation boosted the support rate for the LDP by around 10 points, from 40 to 50%,” she said, adding that “until that support rate went up, there was much tension and nervousness about [LDP lawmakers’] prospects in the election.”

Another factor that increased the LDP’s popularity was the lifting of the state of emergency, following a dramatic decline in the number of COVID-19 cases.

However, Kono contributed to his defeat through scoring an “own goal” on policy issues. His anti-nuclear stance, for example, caused “a lot of concern among not only party members, but also industry because it could threaten the stable supply of electricity. So that was quite damaging for his support,” she said.

The maverick lawmaker also misfired on pension reform, where he suggested introducing a minimum guaranteed pension. This caused further alarm, not only from the business community but also the public, as to whether such a guarantee would have to be funded through a hike in the consumption tax rate.

“In the end, because of this criticism, Kono changed his [pension] proposal and that made him look like a weak candidate,” Iizuka said.

She also pointed to the influence of Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso, describing them as “the driving force for Kishida’s dramatic rise in party members’ votes” and noting “it was obvious that Abe played a huge role for Kishida to win.”

The subsequent appointment of Akira Amari as LDP secretary-general and Takaichi as chair of the LDP Policy Research Council further indicated that Japan now has a “quasi Abe/Aso administration,” she said.

Inada suggested that rather than Kishida’s win representing a win for the “old guard,” it evidenced “underlying transformation within the LDP, Japan politics and society” as highlighted by Kishida’s push for a more inclusive “new capitalism.”


Japan and the world

Providing a Western perspective, Emmott said the number one concern for governments in the UK and the US was always “continuity and consistency.”

“Our governments have concerns about Japan’s long-term policy on defence and security; UK–Japan defence collaboration has been a major theme in recent years,” he said. “Climate is also a very important immediate concern for the UK, with our chairmanship of COP26 [UN Climate Change Conference] in November. We also share concerns about consistency of policy towards China and other issues in regional affairs.”

Emmott argued the continuation of an Abe/Aso-style government would be welcomed by Western governments due to its “consistency and coherence,” while Kishida’s recent stint as foreign minister made him a “familiar figure with knowledge of international affairs.”

However, he said the business community could have concerns over the implications of Kishida’s “new capitalism” in terms of its policy execution.

Looking ahead, Iizuka pointed to the importance of next year’s upper house poll, with both Abe and Aso concerned about maintaining the LDP’s control of both houses of parliament.

Asked about the reaction from LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, Inada said there was an alignment of policy between Kishida and Komeito in creating a “broad middle class,” with more spent on economic growth rather than defence.

Turning to defence and security policy, Inada noted that Kishida was originally seen as “dovish,” but had become more of a realist during his nearly five-year spell as foreign minister.

“Kishida’s policy is about continuity,” he said, pointing out that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, between the US, India, Japan and Australia, will be a cornerstone for the Kishida administration, alongside AUKUS, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and US.

“AUKUS is like the bad cop, dealing with a country such as China, and Quad is like the good cop, for national economic security policy, so Quad and AUKUS can be complementary,” he said. “The US–Japan alliance is key for Japan’s foreign policy and Kishida’s administration as well.”

Inada also suggested the UK could be a potential next partner for the Quad, noting it is “the hope of Japanese foreign policy circles.”


Economy and climate change

Asked about Japan’s stance on climate change, Inada said Kishida would continue Japan’s “net zero” target by 2050, together with a 46% reduction in emissions (from 2013 levels) by 2030.

Nuclear energy is expected, therefore, to play a large role, with Kishida’s victory likely to boost nuclear power as well as renewables.

Concerning Kishida’s vision, Inada said Kishida aimed to promote a doubling of incomes: a modern version of the Income Doubling Plan initiated in 1960 by then-Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda.

“Without growing the pie, people can’t appreciate the benefits of growth, so Kishida’s vision is growth plus distribution,” he said.

Asked whether Kishida’s administration might be another short-term government, as seen prior to Abe’s record-breaking stint in office, Inada said he was “pretty optimistic” there would be no party elections for three years, providing it is possible to successfully manage the COVID-19 crisis and the coming elections.

Should the next nine months prove successful, “there could be a few years’ premiership for Kishida to enjoy,” he said.