Prime Minister Kishida’s New Year Challenges

Dr. Satohiro Akimoto
December 30, 2021

Dr. Satohiro Akimoto, Chairman and President of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA

Prime Minister Kishida provides remarks on 2021 at a press conference on December 28, 2021. (Official Website of the Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet)

It will be three months on January 3, 2022, since Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, president of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), was elected as the nation’s 100th prime minister on October 3, 2021. It was somewhat an awkward and unsure start for Prime Minister Kishida. Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was essentially forced to resign as an unpopular prime minister, who had failed to protect Japanese citizens from the COVID-19 virus. Prime Minister Kishida’s future was unknown as it was widely believed that he would hold general elections on October 31, less than a month after taking office, amid news that the LDP could be in danger of losing a single party majority in the upcoming election.

However, three months after an uncertain start, Prime Minister Kishida is enjoying an unexpectedly high level of approval by Japanese citizens, enjoying a majority approval in 6 out of 7 major polls. The polls by Kyodo, FNN, and Nikkei show high approval rates in the 60% range. Moreover, approval rates for the Kishida cabinet in the polls by Mainichi, FNN, ANN, and Nikkei, have been up significantly from the previous month. In other major polls by NHK, JIJI, and Kyodo, approval rates for the Kishida cabinet have been slightly down from the previous month, however remain quite stably high.

Note: This table is created by Sasakawa USA based on data from seven Japanese media sources.

 

It is worthy to note that it is highly unusual for a new prime minister to maintain high level of approval three months after a new cabinet is formed. Out of 13 new cabinets in the last 25 years, starting with the Hashimoto cabinet in 1996,10 experienced decline in approval rates in their first three months, while only 3 experienced higher approval ratings – the Koizumi cabinet, Abe’s second cabinet, and now Kishida’s cabinet.

In a way, Prime Minister Kishida got lucky. Firstly, he began his administration with a relatively low level of approval, less than 60%, as compared with his predecessor, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who enjoyed approval rates greater than 70% immediately after he was elected prime minister. In other words, while former Prime Minister Suga peaked out at the very beginning, Prime Minister Kishida had room to improve on his approval rates.

Secondly, Prime Minister Kishida led the LDP to a major unexpected victory in the lower house election despite pessimistic forecasts presented by the LDP members and pundits. He secured not only a single party majority by winning 261 seats but also secured an absolute majority by winning 293 seats together with coalition partner, Komeito, which won 32 seats.  The opposition parties, which played a role in undermining former Prime Minister Suga’s credibility with the popular slogan “the Olympics or People’s lives,” mostly failed to gain support of Japanese voters.[1]

Thirdly, probably thanks to former Prime Minister Suga’s efforts to rapidly ramp up vaccinations, new COVID-19 cases have been suppressed at a low level since he took office.  As soon as the WHO designated the Omicron variant as “a variant of concern (VOC),” Prime Minister Kishida quickly introduced a ban on foreign nationals’ entry to Japan. In recent Nikkei polls, 61% of Japanese citizens mostly approved of the government measures to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in Japan and 88% of Japanese citizens favor keeping the borders shut to foreign visitors.[2]

High level of approval rates for Prime Minister Kishida, as his cabinet nears the three-month mark, is rather amazing as his cabinet has made some decisions that were not well thought out, created confusion, and as a result had to backtrack on said decisions. For example, as part of the cabinet efforts to keep new COVID-19 Omicron cases low, the government requested the airlines to not book any new reservations for people entering Japan including Japanese nationals. In addition, as part of the cabinet efforts to support households raising children, the government planned to provide 50,000 yen in cash and 50,000 yen in coupons for each child aged 18 or under.

In both cases, frustration and protest erupted and Prime Minister Kishida himself had to address the issues by mostly accommodating requests from outside the government. While Prime Minister Kishida scored political points with opposition parties that unlike his immediate predecessors, he was sincere in explaining policy issues in the Lower House budget committee sessions this month, his approval rates could have suffered but they did not.

The biggest question for Prime Minister Kishida in the new year is how to ensure continuation of his prime ministership with greater political capital by winning the Upper House election next summer. However, despite the current high level of approval by Japanese citizens, Prime Minister Kishida has a set of major political challenges which he needs to manage and overcome.

First of all, Prime Minister Kishida must keep COVID-19 from exploding. He was able to take credit for the low number of new cases and deaths, thanks to former Prime Minister Suga’s aggressive vaccine rollout, but he will soon have to ensure smooth administration of booster shots, strengthen support for medical professionals and facilities, approve and provide new medicines, and deal with a new wave of infections seemingly on the rise due to Omicron. Japan has been doing much better in suppressing new cases and deaths compared with most other countries, however international comparison does not mean much in domestic political discourse.

Secondly, Prime Minister Kishida must present and sell his major policy vision to the citizens as the national leader. Two recent long-serving prime ministers, Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe, like it or not, had major visions. For Junichiro Koizumi, it was “Structural Reform” and for Shinzo Abe, it was “Departure from the Post War Regime” and “Abenomics” early on, and “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” later. Prime Minister Kishida seems to know this well partially learning from the disastrous failure of his predecessor, who seemed to provide no grand vision except “Continuation of Abe’s Policies.” Former Prime Minister Suga must have had a grand vision, but his time came to an end before he was able to establish strong leadership and press forward.

Prime Minister Kishida seems to try to make “New Form of Capitalism” and “Digital Garden State” as his grand visions, but it is not clear these visions will gain support even within the LDP. Former Prime Minister Abe recently warned against Prime Minister Kishida’s emphasis on redistribution of wealth to expand the middle class by saying Prime Minister Kishida should not deviate from growth strategy of “Abenomics.” Prime Minister Kishida is pushing “Digital Garden State,” which promotes new digital platforms, including 5G, undersea cable, drones, and remote work, in addition to improvement in public health, education, disaster preparedness, and smart agriculture. This seems to be a viable vision, but it is still at a very early stage.

Thirdly, Prime Minister Kishida must skillfully manage serious geopolitical issues and security threats which Japan urgently faces. Former Prime Minister Abe established himself as a protector of the nation by strengthening the security alliance with the U.S., deepening relationships with ASEAN countries, and holding its own vis-a-vis China in the framework of Indo-Pacific vision. National security and geopolitical situations surrounding Japan have become increasingly complex and serious in recent years.

Both Prime Minister Kishida and Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi belong to long-standing Kochikai (currently Kishida faction), which is commonly known to have a “dovish stance” in foreign policy.[3] Foreign Minister Hayashi was until recently leader of the Japan-China Friendship Parliamentarians’ Union. While Prime Minister Kishida continues to express national security positions, which seem to be designed to neutralize his dovish image, Japanese citizens seem to not be clear about his national security policies, particularly with regards to urgent and critical issues such as what to do in case of a Taiwan contingency.

It is critically important for Prime Minister Kishida to manage his relationship with China in 2022, the 50th anniversary of Normalization of Diplomatic Relations between the two countries. It seems Prime Minister Kishida is so far avoiding raising a level of tension with China. Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi refused to put forward a resolution to condemn China over human rights issues in the Diet’s extraordinary session. Prime Minister Kishida decided not to send cabinet level government officials to the Beijing Olympics to show solidarity with the U.S. but avoided calling it a “diplomatic boycott.” While Prime Minister Kishida reportedly strongly desires a bilateral meeting with President Biden at the White House, he could face the most difficult decisions in his political life.

Additionally, Prime Minister Kishida does not seem to be receiving firm political support within the LDP. Senior leaders, such as former Prime Minister Abe, former Prime Minister Taro Aso, former Prime Minister Suga, and Toshihiro Nikai, former Secretary General, and potentially next generation leaders of the LDP, such as Motegi, Secretary General, Takaichi, Chair of Policy Research Committee, Taro Kono, former Vaccine Tsar, Shigeru Ishiba, former Secretary General, and Ryota Takeda, former Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, are having complicated relationships with and are keeping some distance from Prime Minister Kishida.

For example, Takaichi, who occupies one of the most senior party positions, with support of former Prime Minister Abe, has been openly critical of the cabinet’s decision of not seeking support for a resolution to condemn China’s human rights violation in the Diet. She was openly talking about the desire to succeed Prime Minister Kishida. Prime Minister Kishida may have to use political capital to solidify base support within the LDP, particularly in the first half of the new year till the Upper House election.

Finally, While the opposition parties may not be immediate threats to Prime Minister Kishida, he must manage relationships with Komeito and Nippon Ishin no Kai (Ishin). He must work on relationships with Komeito, a coalition partner, if he plans to press several critical issues forward, which he and Komeito may have serious differences on, particularly with regards to national security and the relationship with China. Prime Minister Kishida also needs to carefully gauge his relationship with Ishin, which had a good relationship with former Prime Minister Abe and former Prime Minister Suga, who was essentially pushed out by Prime Minister Kishida. Ishin harshly criticized Prime Minister Kishida regarding provision of support for children under age 18 and revision of allowance of communication, transportation, lodging, and other costs to lawmakers.

Considering all the domestic and security challenges which Prime Minister Kishida faces in the new year, unfortunately, he cannot fully relax during Oshogatsu, the new year holidays.

 

[1] “Inochika Gorinka Kotaenu Shusho Twitterde “Kokkai Sozen” Trend Iri (Prime Minister Does Not Answer “Whether People’s Lives or the Olympics.” Hashtag “Diet Uproar” is Trending on Twitter.),” Mainichi Shimbun, May 11, 2021, https://mainichi.jp/articles/20210511/k00/00m/010/351000c.

[2] Nikkei Shimbun. https://vdata.nikkei.com/newsgraphics/cabinet-approval-rating/.

[3] “New top envoy Toshimasa Hayashi vows to defend universal values amid China rise,” the Japan Times, November 11, 2021, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/11/11/national/hayashi-china-parliament-group/.

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