In case you haven’t heard the news, Japan got a new Prime Minister in September. After just one year in office, Prime Minister Suga made the decision to step down and has since been replaced by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. So, why did this transition take place and what can we expect from Japan’s new leader?
The Liberal Democratic Party
Japan has multiple different political parties but the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP; 自由民主党; Jiyu-Minshuto) has been the dominant party since it was founded in 1955 (except for 1993-1994 and 2009-2012). The LDP has a strong hold on the government now with a majority of the seats in Japan’s National Diet being filled by the party. As you have probably guessed by now, Former PMs Abe and Suga, and current PM Kishida, all belong to the LDP.
While the party is traditionally linked with conservatism and nationalist ideals, the party has grown to have a much broader range of ideologies. It is no surprise that the party contains factions within it each of which have more defined and differentiated political ideals. Each PM has taken a different view on factions. Former PM Abe was a dedicated faction member until he became PM. Upon taking on the role of PM he dropped his faction affiliation, as is traditional for Japanese PMs. It is reported that Abe will be taking on a leadership role in the largest LDP faction soon. Former PM Suga was a member of a couple of different factions over the years until departing from his final faction in 2009 and becoming staunchly anti-faction. Finally, PM Kishida is still participating in his faction’s meetings despite being the current PM.
Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga
Before we delve into the current prime minister, we should quickly examine his predecessor. PM Suga ascended to power in September 2020 when Former PM Shinzo Abe stepped down citing health reasons. It should be noted that Abe was somewhat of an all-star in Japanese politics. He holds the record for longest serving prime minister in Japanese history having served for nearly a decade in total. Abe’s long term in office was exceptional while shorter terms, one or two years, are the norm for Japan’s prime ministers. All this to say, Suga had some big shoes to fill when he came into office.
Though he had played an important part in the running of the LDP for years, Suga had never gained public attention until running for prime minister. When Suga became PM most people considered him to be Abe’s right hand man whose sole purpose would be to continue Abe’s policies. However, Suga would soon step out of Abe’s shadow and become know for his own work, although not in a positive way.
Suga was heavily criticized for his handling of the COVID crisis and for allowing the Olympics to be held. His ratings quickly dropped as Japan made little progress in handling COVID and vaccination rates in the country lagged behind those of other countries. Despite this dismal COVID situation, Suga pushed ahead with the Olympics which led to protests and upset over a surge in infections. To be fair to him, these are problems that he inherited, but he failed to handle them in a satisfactory way and approval ratings for Suga plummeted. It is no wonder that he decided to announce his resignation shortly before a scheduled reelection vote.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida
Fumio Kishida was born in Tokyo but calls Hiroshima his political home base. His father and grandfather were politicians and he has family ties to former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa. Given this history and his “bland” and moderate political stance, he is seen as an establishment politician. As is the rule in Japanese politics, he slowly worked his way up the ranks by taking on various leadership positions within the LDP. He notably served as foreign minister under the Abe administration from 2012 to 2017, making him the longest-serving post-war foreign minister.
Prime Minister Kishida is seen as a bit of a boring figure when compared to former PM Abe. His vision for the LDP is a party that is flexible and able to change its policies to suit the times. He has spoken on the need for politicians to be humble and on the importance of listening to others when making decisions. Ultimately, he is seen as a politician who could balance the LDP and bring the party to a more moderate stance.
Race to the Top
In the race to become PM, Kishida faced strong competition. The candidates included two women, Seiko Noda and Sanae Takaichi, and the popular Taro Kono. Japan lost it’s chance to have its first female PM when both Noda and Takaichi failed to make it to the second round of voting. This led to a final race between Kishida and Kono.
The race was tense as the two candidates had very strong, but different, bases of support. Kishida was viewed as the establishment candidate who had followed the proper rules and waited his turn to be PM. Kono, on the other hand, was backed by a wave of public support. Kono’s liberal policies have made him popular with the Japanese public and he has the Twitter following to prove it. His support of legalizing same-sex marriage, allowing princesses to inherit the throne, increased immigration, and phasing out nuclear power have endeared him to the public while also alienating some in the LDP. The Georgetown educated Kono is seen by some as having ignored the proper rules of Japanese politics. Many viewed his candidacy for PM as coming too early in his political career.
At the end of the day, prime ministers are chosen by the party, not the public. After Noda and Takaichi fell out of the PM race, many of their supporters redirected their support to Kishida. Thus, PM Kishida was victorious and was instated as Japan’s 100th prime minister
COVID Under Kishida
Since becoming PM, Kishida has been quick to react to news of the Omicron variant which has, by now, spread around the world. In late November, PM Kishida announced that Japan would be once again closing its borders and disallowing entry into the country for non-resident foreigners. These border restrictions, which were originally set to last one month, have already been extended.
Internationally, the border closures have drawn criticism as some of the strictest border restrictions currently in place. Domestically this has been a popular move. PM Kishida’s approval ratings have increased since announcing the border closures and nearly 90% of Japanese people support the change. It seems that PM Kishida learned from Suga that it is better to be swift and strong when it comes to handling the COVID pandemic.
Asia Pacific, Japan reverses border easing, bars foreign visitors due to Omicron
Brookings, Suga steps down: Japanese politics in the pandemic era
Brookings, Will new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida bring change to Japan?
Foreign Policy, Fumio Kishida’s Principles Are About to Be Put to the Test
The Straits Times, Bump in support for PM Kishida as tough border restrictions cheered in Japan
Time, Fumio Kishida Is Japan’s New Prime Minister. Here’s How He Beat a Much More Popular Rival
Time, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga Is Resigning. Here’s What That Means