Kishida’s Policy Goals and Party Politics in 2023

Dr. Daniel M. Smith
Gerald L. Curtis Visiting Associate Professor of Modern Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy, Columbia University

Publications Kishida’s Policy Goals and Party Politics in 2023

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida makes a policy speech at the Lower House on the opening day of the 211th ordinary session at the Diet building on January 23, 2023, in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

The first few months of 2023 have been full of political risks for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, with big policy announcements and even bigger uncertainty over how he will achieve them.

In the new Diet session, which began on January 23, parties will debate several major policy issues, including the Japanese government’s planned increase in defense spending (and how to pay for it), and proposals aimed at increasing the birthrate, promoting greater acceptance of LGBT citizens, and extending the operational lifespan of nuclear power plants.[1]

In order to achieve his policy goals, Kishida must somehow manage to overcome disagreements within his own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), differences with Komeito within the ruling coalition, and certain criticism from the opposition parties. Doing so will be all the more challenging given Kishida’s lagging support in public opinion polls.

In January, I had the opportunity to visit Tokyo to meet with politicians, journalists, and academic experts, thanks to the generous support of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA. My mission was to get a sense of Kishida’s major policy goals for 2023 and how party politics—within the LDP, within the coalition, and within the Diet—might shape deliberations and outcomes.

This analysis summarizes my interpretations of what I learned and highlights what to watch for in 2023 in terms of party politics.

Kishida’s Political Woes and Policy Hopes

In the run-up to the LDP’s victory in last summer’s House of Councillors elections on July 10, 2022, many anticipated that Kishida was on track to enjoy a “golden” three years of stability to achieve his policy goals, with no need to face voters again until the autumn of 2025 (when the current four-year term for the House of Representatives expires).

Instead, the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the campaign dashed this expectation. The subsequent revelations of the LDP’s close relationships with the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (formerly the Unification Church), which motivated the killer,[2] further diminished visions of Kishida’s golden time period. The drip-drip-drip of news articles about connections among cabinet ministers and rank-and-file LDP members, combined with criticism of Kishida’s decision to hold a state funeral for Abe, left him in a precarious position by the end of 2022.[3]

According to public opinion polls, disapproval of the Kishida Cabinet exceeded 40 percent in September and has remained above that level. His approval rating in January was below 30 percent for the fourth straight month.[4]

The start of 2023 and a new legislative session brings an opportunity for Kishida to try to reverse this downward trend.

The main policy issue on Kishida’s agenda is defense, following the government’s revised National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Defense Buildup Program plans released in December 2022. The details of these defense plans have attracted substantial attention from analysts outside of Japan—most notably for the planned increase in defense spending to two percent of GDP over the next five years, which includes investments in cybersecurity and counterstrike capability.[5] [6] [7]

Kishida had the opportunity to tout the new security and defense plans in a successful summit meeting on January 13 with President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C.[8] However, foreign approval does not count for much with the domestic audience in Japan.

The Japanese public and political elite alike seem to recognize a need for more spending, particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shattered what Kishida called “the very foundation of the international order,” and raised anxiety in Japan about its own security.[9]

But the key question is how to pay for a defense spending increase.[10] [11] Reallocating surplus revenue from the previous budget, issuing government bonds, and increasing the tobacco tax are all in the mix, but there is still a missing chunk of the budget to cover.

Any increase in income taxes will face stiff resistance. The public is overwhelmingly opposed to tax increases, and a recent poll showed that 78 percent would favor holding a snap election before any tax increase is approved.[12] It will also be difficult to raise taxes on corporations while simultaneously asking them to raise wages. Some of Kishida’s other policy goals, such as childcare-related social spending, also will require funding, which further adds to the debate over finances.[13]

Obstacles Within the LDP

There is a deep division of opinion within the LDP over how to pay for the increased spending on defense and social programs. Kishida and his allies support a tax increase. But others in the party, especially in the largest faction (Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai) previously led by Abe, prefer to cover the cost by issuing government bonds.

Perhaps taking advantage of Kishida’s vulnerability in the LDP party, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga piled on in January by publicly criticizing Kishida for remaining as leader of his faction (Kochikai) while serving as prime minister, as well as for his management of the government.[14]

Kishida’s son, Shotaro, also is creating headaches for his father. Consistent with a long pattern of political nepotism within the LDP,[15] Shotaro (thirty-two years old) serves as executive secretary to his father, despite having thin qualifications for the job. He attracted criticism last month for taking sightseeing tours in Paris, London, and Ottawa with embassy vehicles while on official business.[16] While Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara defended Shotaro’s activities as serving appropriate purposes, the general criticism of nepotism is harder to dodge.

And Kishida’s son is not the only secretary making the prime minister’s job more difficult. Masayoshi Arai, a bureaucrat serving as executive secretary to Kishida, was forced to resign earlier this month after making homophobic statements.

A majority of voters—as much as 60 percent according to one recent poll—support same-sex marriage or civil unions, as do most other parties apart from the LDP.[17] The legislation being considered by the LDP in this legislative session is minuscule in scope—only calling for greater understanding of LGBT citizens—but it still faces opposition from right-wing social conservatives within the LDP.

All of this LDP infighting makes Kishida’s grip on power look tenuous. Even so, current leadership is weak across the board, both within the LDP and among the opposition parties. The former Abe faction is still in disarray, with no clear successor as faction leader, and a key potential alternative to Kishida, Taro Kono, has been grilled in recent weeks over his handling of suspected Chinese spy balloons while serving as defense minister in 2020.[18]

Moreover, much of the intraparty dirty laundry currently being aired is likely to get quickly swept under the rug as the calendar approaches unified local elections scheduled in April 2023.

Obstacles Within the Coalition

Since Kishida became prime minister in October 2021, there has been speculation about the health of the LDP-Komeito coalition given Kishida’s weaker ties to Komeito (compared to his predecessor Suga), and tension over stand-down agreements for Komeito candidates in single-seat districts, including in Kishida’s home prefecture of Hiroshima.[19]

Some in the LDP have questioned whether the party still needs Komeito. Komeito’s vote share has been declining, and its relationship to the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai potentially poses a liability following the controversies over mixing religion and politics that emerged due to the Unification Church issue. In late 2022, some LDP members showed interest in cooperation with the Democratic Party for the People (DPP) or Nippon Ishin no Kai (Ishin), and this was interpreted as a possible rethinking of the coalition.

However, the LDP-Komeito coalition is not likely to change any time soon. After more than two decades of close cooperation, the two parties are closely intertwined at the grassroots level in most prefectures (despite some distance between them in Tokyo and Osaka), and many LDP candidates continue to rely on Komeito supporters for election.

The LDP’s overtures to the DPP and Ishin are mostly about dividing the opposition and signaling to Komeito to fall in line with the LDP’s policy goals. The DPP cannot deliver enough votes to make them a credible replacement as a coalition partner. And Ishin’s leader Nobuyuki Baba has said that Ishin would consider working with the LDP only if the party were to split between conservatives and reformers, with the reform-oriented group winning control.[20]

Even if the LDP-Komeito coalition appears stable for now, Komeito is arguably in the midst of what might be called an “identity crisis.” Party leader Natsuo Yamaguchi postponed retirement in 2022, with the party lacking a strong alternative. Soka Gakkai’s leader and honorary president Daisaku Ikeda is rumored to be near death, and current president Minoru Harada is thought to be less committed to electioneering activities.

During the long second Abe administration (2012-2020), Komeito frequently justified its involvement in the coalition by arguing that it served as a “brake” on the LDP’s more assertive security goals.[21] But after compromising on nearly every major security initiative of the past decade, and with the leadership transition from the hawkish Abe to the more dovish Kishida, the party may be losing focus. In some ways—particularly through its long control over the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism—Komeito has become a pork-oriented party, committed to redistribution but lacking much else in terms of a real policy vision to distinguish it from the LDP.

When it comes to policy debates in the current legislative session, the biggest possibilities for intra-coalition friction relate to taxes and China. Komeito will continue to try to soften criticism of China in defense policy language and will advocate for redistribution to support childcare and other social policies, while opposing higher taxes on families and small businesses.

In short, Komeito appears to be largely on board with most of what Kishida hopes to accomplish, and the party does not seem to be in a position to strongly push back on the LDP anyway.

The Opposition will Oppose (and Hope for New Elections)

The opposition parties, led by the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), have every reason to focus on criticizing Kishida in upcoming Diet debates. CDP and Ishin reached agreement to cooperate to oppose tax increases prior to the start of the legislative session, and the LDP’s attempts to drive a wedge between the parties seems unsuccessful so far.[22]

If Kishida decides to call early elections, this would be an ideal scenario for the opposition. The opposition has struggled to challenge the LDP on the basis of policy differences, despite proposing policies that are, on average, more popular with voters than those of the LDP.[23]

The LDP’s key advantage in recent elections seem to come from what political scientists call “valence.” Valence can be anything from the reputation of a party leader, a party’s credibility or competence in governing, or any other party-specific characteristic that is not directly connected to the party’s policy positions.

In the 2021 general election for the House of Representatives, the LDP’s valence advantage was boosted by the replacement of Prime Minister Suga with Kishida and the successful rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine just prior to the election.[24]

CDP leader Kenta Izumi is more centrist than his predecessors and is trying to shake the perception that his party’s policies are “unrealistic.” But the main problem facing the CDP is a lingering impression, ever since the administration of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) from 2009 to 2012, that the opposition parties cannot be trusted to govern competently.

The opposition cannot hope to compete directly against the LDP on the valence issue of governing competence. Instead, the best valence message for the opposition is one of reform. Doing so would facilitate a unified message among the opposition parties and put the spotlight on an intraparty weakness in the LDP. While former LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was able to seize the mantle of reform against his own party in the 2005 general election, Kishida is not as well positioned to do so.[25]

If the LDP’s reputation for governing competence slips, a reform-oriented message may be enough to galvanize support for a change in direction. And even a small shift in voter support could improve the opposition’s fortunes, since the LDP wins many Diet seats with pluralities or slim majorities.

When will the next election be? Unified local elections in April may give some hint as to the mood of the public, and the G7 summit in Kishida’s hometown of Hiroshima in May could serve to boost his image and popularity. But so long as his popularity remains below 30 percent, an early election would be incredibly risky for Kishida and the LDP.

[1] Eric Johnston, “Kishida heads into parliamentary session with packed—and divisive—agenda,” The Japan Times, January 22, 2023, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/01/22/national/japan-parliament-kishida-defense-spending/.

[2] Daniel M. Smith, “Abe’s Assassination and Implications for Constitutional Revision,” Japan Political Pulse, Sasakawa USA, July 14, 2022, https://spfusa.org/publications/abes-assassination-and-implications-for-constitutional-revision/.

[3] Satohiro Akimoto, “Japan’s Stagnant and Unstable Political Landscape,” Japan Political Pulse, Sasakawa USA, November 4, 2022, https://spfusa.org/publications/japans-stagnant-and-unstable-political-landscape/.

[4] “Kishida Cabinet approval falls to record-low 26.5%,” The Japan Times, January 19, 2023, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/01/19/national/politics-diplomacy/kishida-cabinet-approval-record-low/.

[5] Kosuke Takahashi, “Japan Approves 26.3% Increase in Defense Spending for Fiscal Year 2023,” The Diplomat, December 24, 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/12/japan-approves-26-3-increase-in-defense-spending-for-fiscal-year-2023/.

[6] Jeffrey W. Hornung and Christopher B. Johnstone, “Japan’s strategic shift is significant, but implementation hurdles await,” War on the Rocks, January 27, 2023, https://warontherocks.com/2023/01/japans-strategic-shift-is-significant-but-implementation-hurdles-await/.

[7] Jennifer Kavanagh, “Japan’s New Defense Budget Is Still Not Enough,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 8, 2023, https://carnegieendowment.org/2023/02/08/japan-s-new-defense-budget-is-still-not-enough-pub-88981.

[8] Mireya Solís, “As Kishida meets Biden, what is the state of the US-Japan alliance?” Brookings, January 20, 2023, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2023/01/20/as-kishida-meets-biden-what-is-the-state-of-the-us-japan-alliance/.

[9] Takako Hikotani, “How the Ukraine War Is Changing Japan: Tokyo Moves Toward a More Assertive Security Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, April 28, 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/japan/2022-04-28/how-ukraine-war-changing-japan.

[10] Sheila A. Smith, “Financing Japan’s Defense Leap,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 14, 2022, https://www.cfr.org/blog/financing-japans-defense-leap.

[11] Daisuke Akimoto and Purnendra Jain, “Doubling the Defense Budget Won’t be Easy for Japan,” The Diplomat, January 21, 2023, https://thediplomat.com/2023/01/doubling-the-defense-budget-wont-be-easy-for-japan/.

[12] “78% urge election before tax hikes to cover Japan defense budget rise,” Mainichi Shimbun, January 29, 2023, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20230129/p2g/00m/0na/033000c.

[13] Eric Johnston and Gabriele Ninivaggi, “Kishida’s child care plans raise questions about who will pay and how,” The Japan Times, February 16, 2023, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/02/16/national/politics-diplomacy/kishida-child-care-plans-who-will-pay.

[14] “Suga Raps Kishida Again, This Time over His Management of Govt,” Nippon.com, January 19, 2023, https://www.nippon.com/en/news/yjj2023011801072/.

[15] Daniel M. Smith, Dynasties and Democracy: The Inherited Incumbency Advantage in Japan, Stanford University Press, 2018, https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=24504; Tobias Harris, “The Next Kishi,” Observing Japan, February 16, 2023, https://observingjapan.substack.com/p/the-next-kishi.

[16] Kanako Takahara, “Kishida’s son in hot seat over shopping during official trips overseas,” The Japan Times, January 31, 2023, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/01/31/national/shotaro-kishida-shopping-sightseeing/.

[17] “64% favor recognizing same-sex marriage in Japan, poll finds,” The Japan Times, February 13, 2023, https://www.japantimes.co.jp‌/news‌/2023/02/13/national/same-sex-marriage-64-percent-support; “Most Japanese Support Same-Sex Marriage, New Public Opinion Survey Finds,” Stanford Japan Barometer, February 14, 2023, https://aparc.fsi.stanford.edu/japan/news/most-japanese-support-same-sex-marriage-new-public-opinion-survey-finds.

[18] “Japan’s Defense Ministry Lacked a Sense of Urgency on Balloons,” Yomiuri Shimbun, February 17, 2023, https://japannews.yomiuri.co.jp/editorial/yomiuri-editorial/20230217-91723/.

[19] “LDP-Komeito coalition facing friction 10 years after return to power,” The Japan Times, December 26, 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/12/26/national/politics-diplomacy/ldp-komeito-coalition-friction/.

[20] Tobias Harris and Levi McLaughlin, “The Small Pacifist Party That Could Shape Japan’s Future,” Foreign Policy, November 4, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/11/04/komeito-ldp-japan-elections-defense-policy-china/.

[21] “自民分裂なら連立入りも、馬場維新代表 (If the Liberal Democratic Party splits, join the coalition, Ishin Baba),” Jiji.com, February 13, 2023, https://www.jiji.com/jc/article?k=2023021300906&g=pol.

[22] “CDP, Nippon Ishin Agree to Maintain Cooperation,” Nippon.com, January 18, 2023, https://www.nippon.com/en/news/yjj2023011800130/.

[23] Yusaku Horiuchi, Daniel M. Smith, and Teppei Yamamoto, “Measuring Voters’ Multidimensional Policy Preferences with Conjoint Analysis: Application to Japan’s 2014 Election,” Political Analysis 26, no. 2 (2018): 190-209, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/political-analysis‌/article/abs/measuring-voters-multidimensional-policy-preferences-with-conjoint-analysis-application-to-japans-2014-election‌‌/‌A03E3D8850435DB726B2F3FB2102F3EF.

[24] Daniel M. Smith, Robert J. Pekkanen, and Steven R. Reed, “Conclusion: Voters Choose Competence in Japan’s Coronavirus Election,” Japan Decides 2021: The Japanese General Election, December 2022, p. 387-396, https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-031-11324-6_26.

[25] Steven R. Reed, Kenneth Mori McElwain, and Kay Shimizu, Political Change in Japan: Electoral Behavior, Party Realignment, and the Koizumi Reforms, Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, 2009, https://aparc.fsi.stanford.edu/publications/political_change_in_japan‌_electoral‌_behavior_party_realignment_and_the_koizumi_reforms.

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