Kishida’s Leadership at an Inflection Point

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

Publications Kishida’s Leadership at an Inflection Point

Reversed Fortune

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida walks on stage during the state funeral of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on September 27, 2022, at the Budokan in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Franck Robichon – Pool/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has been battling for his political life. His approval ratings as prime minister, which remained at an unusually elevated level since he took office last October 2021, suddenly began to decline in June 2022, a few weeks before the Upper House election on July 10. In fact, Kishida’s approval rating took a serious beating from 57.1 percent in July to 40.2 percent in September, while simultaneously his disapproval rating rose significantly from 27.2 percent in July to 46.7 percent in September. Kishida has proudly pledged to place the utmost importance on listening to the voices of regular people, even going to lengths to show his Kishida notebook in which he writes about what he hears from the public. He must be greatly disappointed that his constituents, whose voices he had carefully paid attention to, have drifted away from him.


Figure 1. Cabinet Approval Ratings
Note: Approval ratings of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet compiled by Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.

Two major political issues, a state funeral for former Prime Minister Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers’ links with the Unification Church, which surfaced following the tragic death of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, resulted in this drastic decline in public support for Kishida. Pundits thought Prime Minister Kishida would enjoy a “golden three years” and push through his “new capitalism” agenda following the recent Upper House victory. According to such views, Kishida would have free rein of his political operation as there were no national-level elections scheduled for the next three years. However, the wheel of fortune appears to have quickly reversed in a painful and powerful way for Kishida.

Public Opposition to State Funeral

The first major political problem emerged when Kishida decided to hold a state funeral for Abe. Kishida was teary-eyed when he announced the passing of Abe several hours after the attack. While there were differences in political philosophy and beliefs, Kishida always felt affinity with Abe, as they were elected to the Diet in the same year in 1993. Kishida decided to hold a state funeral for Abe because of the following reasons: (1) Abe was the longest serving prime minister, (2) Abe contributed to the recovery from the Great Eastern Earthquake which helped revitalize the economy, (3) Abe established a strategic foreign policy and contributed to global peace, and (4) foreign governments and congresses expressed respect and condolences for Abe’s passing.

However, Kishida’s decision to hold a state funeral for Abe completely backfired in terms of domestic politics. Abe was a visionary who tried to usher in a new political agenda, particularly in terms of national security, oftentimes seemingly advocating departure from pacifist traditions which prevailed in post-war Japan. His conviction was so strong that he resorted to high-handed approaches to push forward his political agenda. As a result, Abe was a politician, who evoked both strongly positive and negative feelings among the Japanese public. The media coverage of Kishida’s decision to hold a state funeral for Abe was generally not so supportive of it.

As a result, there emerged strong reservations in Japan about holding a state funeral for Abe. In the latest Kyodo polls, 13.8 percent of the respondents were “for a state funeral” and 24.7 percent of the respondents were “somewhat for a state funeral,” whereas 40.6 percent of the respondents were “against a state funeral,” and 20.2 percent of the respondents were “somewhat against a state funeral.” Roughly speaking, 30 percent of the Japanese people were for holding a state funeral for Abe and 60 percent of the Japanese people were against holding a state funeral for Abe.[1] In the same polls, a whopping 72.5 percent of the respondents saw the approximate cost of Abe’s state funeral at about 1.66 billion yen as “not reasonable,” while only 22.9 percent of the respondents saw the cost as “reasonable.”

The strongly negative feeling among the public might quickly dissipate following the state funeral held on September 27. The media attention surely will pass from the state funeral to other timelier issues. The public, particularly the younger generation whose support for the state funeral was higher than older generations, might change their views that the state funeral was not such a bad idea after all. They were impressed with the international respect for Abe demonstrated by the presence of many foreign leaders and dignitaries, including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.[2] However, Kishida’s failure to garner enough support for the state funeral among the Japanese public has turned out to be a big political misstep.

LDP’s Troublesome Links with the Unification Church

The second and more serious political issue emerged in the wake of Abe’s assassination by a man whose family was destroyed financially by the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, also known widely as the Unification Church. The suspect in custody wanted to kill the Korean leader of the Unification Church but killed Abe instead as Abe is the “grandson of former Prime Minister Nobuyuki Kishi who introduced the Church from Korea.”[3] As media coverage on the motives of Abe’s assassination intensifies, the widespread relationship between the Unification Church and LDP politicians has quickly come to light. An LDP survey of its members revealed more than 100 LDP lawmakers have had ties with the Unification Church.

Mindful of the public criticism of the LDP for not only leaving the Unification Church unchecked, but also helping the Church’s attempt to preserve its business interest by allowing it to legally change its name to the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification to hide its true identity, Kishida decided to shuffle his Cabinet on August 10, earlier than originally planned. Kishida said he would change seven Cabinet ministers who had connections with the Unification Church and make sure to review the LDP relationship with the Unification Church.[4]

However, seven members of Kishida’s reshuffled second Cabinet turned out to have relations with the Unification Church, including Minister in charge of Economic Revitalization Daishiro Yamagiwa; Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Minoru Terada; and Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare Katsunobu Kato. Yamagiwa, who continued in the same ministerial position from Kishida’s first Cabinet, admitted meeting in 2018 with Hak Ja Han Moon, widow of the Unification Church’s founder Sun Myung Moon. Following his unfortunate and unsuccessful attempt to defuse attention, Yamagiwa said that he only attended a meeting of a group affiliated with the Unification Church 11 years ago in Nigeria.

The ties between the Unification Church and the LDP lawmakers have turned out to be much wider and deeper than initially reported. Lower House Speaker Hiroyuki Hosoda, who delivered a eulogy at Abe’s state funeral, revealed he had attended events hosted by the Unification Church and affiliated groups, even sometimes as a speaker, between 2018 and 2019. As of the end of September, a LDP survey revealed 125 LDP lawmakers had substantial ties with the Unification Church.

The stream of media reports about LDP lawmakers’ ties with the Unification Church, and Kishida’s inability to get to the bottom of this issue, seriously has shaken the public’s respect and confidence in Kishida. The opposition parties intend to attack Kishida for not squarely dealing with the problem in an extraordinary parliamentary session, which began on October 3, 2022.

Transformational Moment for the World

Kishida said “Japan is facing a situation, which could be described as a national crisis” referring to inflation, national security, the pandemic, energy, food, and climate change in his policy speech at the Plenary session of the Lower House. This was the first occasion for Kishida to demonstrate his resoluteness to deal with these global problems at the Diet session since the July 10 Upper House election. As a result, his policy speech included all the major challenges, which Japan and the world face, such as political stances, economic policy, rising prices coupled with a weak Yen, structural wage increases, investment and reform for growth, COVID-19, disaster relief, building an inclusive society, foreign relations and national security, and the election system and Constitution.

It was a well-thought out and comprehensive speech touching upon all the major policy issues, which Japan needs to urgently tackle in order to overcome serious challenges. Kishida is right in calling these challenges a “national crisis,” as each one of them is critical in protecting and preserving peace, prosperity, and the well-being of Japanese citizens. However, many Japanese seem to think it was monotone, bland, and not-so-inspirational. The Asahi Shimbun, a national newspaper generally critical of the LDP’s conservative political stance, described Kishida’s policy speech as “showing no sign of his determination or readiness to deal with these problems” in an editorial titled “Kishida’s Diet speech hardly a rallying cry to restore trust.”[5]

Former Prime Minister Abe was a strategic and far-sighted leader, who correctly identified dramatically changing economic and security threats in the geopolitical environment surrounding Japan. He introduced a concept of an Indo-Pacific strategy to ensure a region based on freedom, democracy, free-enterprise, and rule of law. He redefined the heavily restrictive role and mission of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and allowed Japan to exercise its right of collective self-defense by passing a package of security bills. In short, he tried to “normalize” Japan’s national security policy and defense posture in accordance with generally accepted international norms. However, Abe’s chronic illness and tragic assassination cut his work short.

This is a transformational moment in the world. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, which ignores all the international norms, instantly and fundamentally changed the security environment in Europe. Germany did away with decades of restrictive foreign policies and its security stance, literally in a matter of days following Russia’s initial missile attacks in February 2022. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz demonstrated clear and decisive leadership in reversing the country’s post-war defense strategy and called for a massive increase in military spending, which Germany cautiously guarded due to its militaristic past.

While the U.S. is not directly fighting in Ukraine to defend a sovereign nation, the U.S. is assuming a leadership role together with like-minded European nations to push back Russian military aggression by providing massive military assistance. There is collective resolve among the U.S. and its European allies and friends that Putin’s naked aggression in Ukraine must be thwarted to protect Western democratic principles. Russia must be prevented from annexing a democratic sovereign nation by military means, as it creates openings for such lawless actions by other autocratic and militaristic nations elsewhere including in the Indo-Pacific region.

Kishida’s Gut Check Moment

Japan needs a strategic, far-sighted, decisive, as well as a nuanced and cautious leader, who understands the gravity of this transformational moment. In a way, the Japanese public is ahead of politicians and legal experts in terms of recognizing the necessity of bolstering Japan’s national defense. In Yomiuri’s polls in June, 72 percent of the respondents agree with Japan’s strengthening of defense capabilities, whereas only 21 percent of the respondents disagree.[6] In Yomiuri’s polls in September, 81 percent of the respondents think China poses a threat to Japan’s security, whereas only 15 percent do not think China poses a threat.[7] As mentioned before, Kishida proudly talked about his ability and desire to heed the voices of the general public. Now that he has heard much from the voices of the general public as prime minister, it is a gut check moment for Kishida to emerge as an enthusiastic, strong, and thoughtful leader to help Japan overcome its “national crisis.”

[1] “世論調査 (共同通信データ) (Public Opinion Survey [Kyodo News Data]),” Tokyo Shimbun, September 22, 2022, https://www.tokyo-np.co.jp/digican/shuin2021_yoron?sjkd_page=cont_KA613b0d7b468bd_KA632bf2819c8e9.

[2] “若者が見つめた安倍氏の「国葬」(Abe’s State Funeral Seen by Young People),” NHK, October 1, 2022, https://www3.nhk.or.jp/news‌/html/20221001/k10013840181000.html.

[3] “旧統一教会への恨みがなぜ元総理への殺意に?心情の変化追う〜安倍氏銃撃1カ月 (Why did the resentment toward the former Unification Church lead to murderous intent toward the former prime minister? Chasing changes in sentiment ~ One month after Mr. Abe’s shooting),” TV Asahi, August 13, 2022, https://news.tv-asahi.co.jp/news_society/articles/000264881.html.

[4] “岸田改造内閣、旧統一教会巡り7閣僚交代:識者はこうみる (Kishida Reshuffled Cabinet, Seven Ministerial Changes around the Former Unification Church: Experts See This),” Reuters, August 10, 2022,  https://jp.reuters.com/article/kishida-new-cabinet-idJPKBN2PG0BG.

[5] “EDITORIAL: Kishida’s Diet speech hardly a rallying cry to restore trust,” The Asahi Shimbun, October 4, 2022, https:‌‌//‌www.asahi‌.com/‌ajw/articles/14734364.

[6] “2022年6月 電話全国世論調査(参院選序盤) 質問と回答 (June 2022 National Telephone Poll (Early Stage of Upper House Election) Questions and Answers),” Yomiuri Shimbun, June 24, 2022, https://www.yomiuri.co.jp/election/yoron-chosa/20220623-OYT1T50250/.

[7] “2022年9月 電話全国世論調査 質問と回答 (September 2022 Telephone National Opinion Poll Questions and Answers),” Yomiuri Shimbun, September 5, 2022, https://www.yomiuri.co.jp/election/yoron-chosa/20220904-OYT1T50163/.

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