Dr. Satohiro Akimoto, Chairman and President of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA
Strong Popular Support
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida began his office with strong public support last fall. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had a surprisingly strong showing in the Upper House election on October 31, 2021. Although the LDP lost 15 seats in the election, the party secured not only a single party majority but also an absolute majority by winning 261 seats. Strong public support for Prime Minister Kishida has maintained throughout the year, despite some ill-conceived decisions by the administration, which had to be rescinded or modified after protest and confusion emerged. For example, the request for airlines not to book any new reservations for people entering Japan, including Japanese nationals, and an introduction of a coupon system of financial support for households raising children met strong criticism. Prime Minister Kishida’s flexibility in both reacting to the public’s voices in a positive way and maintaining a very low load of new COVID-19 infections by international comparison helped maintain a high level of public approval.
In the first month of the new year, Japanese citizens’ support for Prime Minister Kishida remains strong. Even during the second half of January, when new COVID-19 cases rapidly increased to roughly 85,000 new cases on January 29, which is the highest level for Japan ever since the COVID-19 crisis began two years ago, approval for Prime Minister Kishida mostly stayed the same or only slightly decreased (Figure 1). This is remarkable considering the fact that former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s political credibility was ruined by a much lower peak level of new COVID-19 cases last summer. Prime Minister Kishida seems well-positioned for the House of Councilors election, which is crucially important for his political future.
Figure 1. Cabinet Approval Rating
Note: This table is created by Sasakawa USA based on data from five Japanese media sources.
Unstable Support From Within The LDP
A big concern Prime Minister Kishida has is a weak support base within the LDP. He is the leader of the Kishida faction (Kochi Kai), which has 43 members. He can count on support from the Aso faction (Shiko Kai), led by Vice President of the LDP Taro Aso, which has 53 members, and also from the Motegi faction (Heisei Kenkyu Kai), which has 53 members. Therefore, Prime Minister Kishida can count on support from 149 LDP lawmakers, who are members of the Kishida, Aso, and Motegi factions. However, since the LDP has a total of 372 lawmakers in the House of Representatives and the House of Councilors, Prime Minister Kishida can count on only 40% of the LDP lawmakers as his core supporters.
Additionally, Prime Minister Kishida’s relationship with other major factions within the LDP is precarious to say the least. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose faction (Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyu Kai) has the largest number of members with 94 lawmakers, keeps a distance from Prime Minister Kishida. Former Prime Minister Abe played a major role in securing Prime Minister Kishida’s victory in the party presidency election on September 29, 2021, by backing Sanae Takaichi, Policy Research Council chair, in the election. It was very clear that had former Prime Minister Abe not backed Takaichi, Prime Minister Kishida would have lost badly to Taro Kono, a maverick former Minister in charge of COVID-19 vaccine rollout, in the first round. Former Prime Minister Abe also delivered roughly 90% of votes, which Takeichi won in the first round, to Prime Minister Kishida in the runoff to ensure his victory over Kono.
Despite former Prime Minister Abe’s contribution, Prime Minister Kishida appointed Akira Amari, a key member of Aso Faction, Secretary General, against Former Prime Minister Abe’s wish. When Amari lost in his district in the Lower House election, Prime Minister Kishida quickly appointed former Minister of Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi, of the Heisei Kenkyu Kai faction, as his Secretary General, again skipping a member of the Abe faction. Kishida did appoint Tatsuo Fukuda, a member of the Abe faction, General Council chair. However, this was not to Abe’s liking, as Abe and Fukuda are not particularly close due to a family rivalry started by their respective fathers.
Furthermore, Prime Minister Kishida appointed Yoshimasa Hayashi as his Minister of Foreign Affairs. Abe and Hayashi do not get along as the two families have been political rivals in Yamaguchi prefecture for two generations. As a matter of fact, Hayashi’s emergence as a potential future Prime Minister candidate is a real political threat to former Prime Minister Abe in Yamaguchi prefecture. Abe received the lowest number of votes among four winners in Yamaguchi prefecture in the last Lower House election. Masahiro Komura of the LDP won 118,882 votes in district 1. Nobuo Kishi of the LDP, who is Minister of Defense and blood brother of former Prime Minister Abe, won 109,914 votes in district 2. Yoshimasa Hayashi of the LDP won 96,983 votes in district 3. And Shinzo Abe won 80,448 votes in district 4. Abe alarmingly lost almost 20,000 votes from the Lower House election in 2017. This is a big concern for former Prime Minister Abe, as the number of districts in Yamaguchi prefecture will be reduced from four to three in the near future as a measure to reduce the vote-value disparity.
Moreover, Hayashi is generally regarded as a “pro-China” lawmaker, as he was chair of the Japan-China Friendship Parliamentarians Union. Hayashi is seen to represent the liberal and dovish tradition of Kochi Kai (Kishida faction), which is quite a contrast to the conservative and hard-liner tradition of Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyu Kai. It will not be acceptable for former Prime Minister Abe if the Kishida cabinet’s foreign policies deviate from the basic framework of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” which Abe originally advocated, and become too lenient to China’s aggressive behavior in the region.
Prime Minister Kishida also has rather strained relationships with other heavy weights in the LDP, such as former Prime Minister Suga, former Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, former Chair of Diet Affairs Committee Hiroshi Moriyama, and former Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba, as he did not place priority in bringing the LDP leaders together when he appointed cabinet positions and key LDP leadership positions. These “non-mainstream” LDP leaders, who supported Kono in the party presidency election last September, have roughly 80 lawmakers under their influences including the Nikai faction (Shisui Kai) with 45 members, Moriyama faction (Kinmirai Kenkyukai) with 7 members, and the “Suga group” with 12 members.
Former Secretary General Nikai is not too pleased with Prime Minister Kishida as Prime Minister Kishida essentially brought the Suga cabinet down by proposing a term-limit for old guards like him and no Shisui Kai members were given important LDP positions. Former Secretary General Nikai has lost much power under Prime Minister Kishida but still retains considerable influence as he has a strong grip on the LDP’s support base, such as construction-related sectors. These “non-mainstream” LDP leaders get together from time to time to coordinate among themselves. While there are no formal arrangements among them, the “non-mainstream” can pose significant obstacles for Prime Minister Kishida’s effort to solidify an internal LDP support base for himself.
These “non-mainstream” leaders are veteran lawmakers, who are a force to be reckoned with, as they know how to engage in complex political dealings. For example, former Prime Minister Suga has a strong relationship with leadership of both Komeito, the coalition partner, and Nihon Ishin no Kai, which became the third largest party in the House of Representatives, surpassing Komeito in the last general election. Prime Minister Kishida needs to be careful in dealing with former Prime Minister Suga, as he might find himself in a position to solicit former Prime Minister Suga’s support in reaching out to Komeito or Nihon Ishin no Kai. For example, Komeito is not pleased with current status of coordination with the Kishida administration regarding campaign strategy for the House of Councilors election.
The Upper House Election
Prime Minister Kishida’s highest short-term political priority is to win the House of Councilors election slated for July 2022. If the LDP prevails in the House of Councilors election, providing Prime Minister Kishida does not call a snap election, he would not have to face another election until 2025. In other words, Prime Minister Kishida would have a three-year period to push forward with his mid to long-term political goals as Prime Minister.
In order to have a strong showing in the House of Councilors election, Prime Minister Kishida will have to navigate the 150-day regular parliamentary session, which began on January 17, 2022, to pass a fiscal 2022 budget and other bills. Prime Minister Kishida would also have to manage difficult domestic and foreign policy issues, such as preventing COVID-19 infections from exploding, revitalizing economic activities, creating quality jobs, and strengthening Japan’s national defense based on the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance while managing relations with China. In short, Prime Minister Kishida must establish himself as a trustworthy leader, who can guide the LDP to victory in the House of Councilors election and provide Japanese citizens public heath safety, economic stability, and national security.
Two appointments are key in managing the process leading to the House of Councilors election this summer: Secretary General Motegi and Minister of Foreign Affairs Hayashi. Motegi and Hayashi, both of whom have high political ambitions, are jockeying for a position to succeed Prime Minister Kishida. However, in the Kishida administration, they must cooperate to create political momentum for the administration, as their individual political fortune is now tied to whether or not Prime Minister Kishida could successfully extend his prime ministership for three years by winning the House of Councilors election this summer.
 “Prime Minister Kishida’s New Year Challenges,” Japan Political Pulse, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, last modified December 30, 2021, https://spfusa.org/japan-political-pulse/prime-minister-kishidas-new-year-challenges/.