Author: Ben Ascione, Waseda University
Japan’s political calendar in 2021 was marked by the government’s commitment to host the postponed Tokyo Olympics in July in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) chairman in September and the House of Commons election in October. With this series of events, the term of office of Yoshihide Suga as Prime Minister and the inauguration of Fumio Kishida ended after only one year. Nevertheless, despite the domestic and foreign policy challenges facing the new government, the change in leadership shows no signs of a major change in direction.
When Suga, the continuity candidate, succeeded Shinzo Abe in September 2020, he only had a year to subside his qualifications ahead of an LDP leadership race and national election and the unenviable job of hosting the Olympics during a pandemic To provide evidence. The job was a poisoned chalice.
Despite popular opposition, canceling the Olympics was never an option. Abe had considered the Games to be a symbol of the post-March 11 recovery in Japan, a means of stimulating economic growth, and a means of cultivating national pride in the run-up to an elusive referendum on the constitutional revision. IOC treaties gave him and not the Japanese government the power to cancel the games.
When the Delta variant sparked a surge in COVID-19 infections that coincided with the Olympics, Suga’s approval rating dropped. Almost 60 percent of those polled in a Kyodo poll named the games as a factor making Japan’s fifth and largest wave of COVID-19 infections worse.
Suga’s polls did not recover in the run-up to the LDP leadership race in September. After Kishida threw his hat in the ring, LDP leaders tapped Suga on the shoulder and persuaded him to withdraw.
Kishida’s main competitor in the running for the LDP leadership race was Taro Kono. While Kono was the popular choice of the public, his previous positions on issues brought him into conflict with the nationalist and conservative factions of the LDP. In an open race, two female candidates competed for the first time, the right-wing Sanae Takaichi and the last bastion of the LDP liberality Seiko Noda. Although they never really got a chance, they served to split the vote and send it to a second round, in which MPs and parliamentary group leaders had more say, diluting the influence of the ordinary LDP members who preferred Kono.
The current situation has two effects on Japan until 2022.
First, Japanese democracy is at its weakest point in the post-war period. The electoral cooperation between LDP and Komeito has kept their coalition government in power since 2012 without any problems.
The opposition parties are fragmented and in disarray. They are unable to convince Japan’s unaffiliated, fluctuating voters, who represent over 40 percent of the electorate, to come and vote in sufficient numbers. The November change in leadership in the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party is unlikely to reverse its fortunes unless it can address the persistently low turnout in Japan.
Second, Kishida still depends on the conservative-nationalist faction leaders of the LDP. As the first leader of the traditionally liberal Kochikai faction to be prime minister since 1993, Abe critics hoped that Kishida could lead Japan in a new direction. Such hopes are rather weak.
In economic policy, Kishida advocated the idea of ââa new capitalism, stepping up redistribution efforts to stimulate growth and close the prosperity gap that has worsened under the Abenomics economic package. He has failed to formulate its content and is now dependent on the Committee for a New Japanese Capitalism he founded to “develop a vision for a post-pandemic economy and society”.
In foreign and security policy, Kishida follows the Indo-Pacific vision of Abe and Suga. This means prioritizing the U.S. alliance and relationships with Quad members like Australia, which he is visiting this week. Kishida reportedly supported a constitutional revision out of respect for Abe, although he is unlikely to risk serious political capital to deliver it. He has also advocated recognition of missile strikes on enemy bases, although critics say doing so would violate Article 9 of the constitution’s peace clause.
In China, Kishida walks a tightrope. The government has postponed a parliamentary resolution condemning China’s human rights record while planning to refrain from sending “senior officials” to the Beijing 2022 Olympics, avoiding calling it a “diplomatic boycott.” How Japan and China will mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of their post-war relations in September 2022 remains to be seen. Relations with South Korea, tense because of the problems of “comfort women” and forced labor during the war, remained deadlocked when Kishida tossed the ball back onto the South Korean field in his maiden speech.
The country is crying out for creative political strategy and constructive Japanese initiatives to find a way to reconcile Japan’s alliance with the United States, its economic partnership with China, and the multilateral system on which Japanese and East Asian prosperity is built.
If Kishida cannot assert his control of the LDP after the upper house elections in July 2022 and build more than lukewarm public support, it will be difficult for him to use the levers of the Prime Minister’s office to embark on a new political course. If inspiration is required from his political predecessors like former Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira, Kishida will be more likely to avoid shaking the boat and partnering with the LDP’s conservative-nationalist faction leaders.
Ben Ascione is Assistant Professor at Waseda University’s Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies.
This article is part of a EAF special series Looking back on 2021 and the coming year.