On 29th September 2021 when Fumio Kishida emerged as the winner in a struggle for party leadership the issue of next Prime Ministership of Japan was unequivocally settled. The election was necessitated by Yoshihide Suga’s announcement to step down in the wake of severely declining public support because of his handling of the COVID-19 during the Olympics. Thus on 4th October 2021, a suave, sophisticated and soft-spoken gentleman from Hiroshima, wrapped in diplomatic elegance took charge of the office as 100th Prime Minister of modern Japan. He is the longest-serving Foreign Minister under the longest-serving Prime Minister of modern Japan. Fumio Kishida 64 is no stranger to Japanese politics. Like Abe Shinzo, he inherits a rich political legacy as both his father and grandfather were members of the House Representatives. A third-generation politician from Hiroshima, Kishida has a reputation among his fellow lawmakers of being polite and honest.

By Dr Anil Rawat

Leadership contest that catapulted Kishida to the top position was marked by some interesting features. Presence of two women candidates for top job for the first time in the political history of Japan engendered media and public debate about the growing role of women in public life thus heralding the end of Japan’s patriarchic form of political culture. Although in all the public opinion surveys after Yoshihide Suga’s announcement to quit the post, the popular vaccination Czar Taro Kono appeared as the favourite candidate but in the first round of voting he fell short by one vote behind Kishida. In a swift action Kishida moved to placate the dominant conservative faction of the party signalling that he was willing to compromise on key issues to suit Japan’s conservatives. Even during his leadership campaign Kishida had tried to shed his soft image on China by expressing “deep alarm” over the Chinese actions in the South China Sea. He also shied away from endorsing controversial social positions like same-sex marriage. The conservatives took notice and threw their weight behind Kishida to score a landslide victory with 257 to 170 over Taro Kono in the runoff election.

The popular vaccination Czar Taro Kono is the son of powerful former Speaker of the Diet Yohei Kono; and has been the Foreign and Defence Minister of Japan and is counted among the most popular serving politicians in Japan. His high profile image as the bold reformer with strong views on social issues such as same sex marriage, women empowerment etc are seen as impediment to building consensus in the party. Harmony, based on consensus in governance is the hallmark of Japanese democratic political culture.

Fumio Kishida not only inherits a rich political legacy he has a long experience in politics and governance serving as the Foreign Minister, science and technology minister, consumer affairs minister and also the chief of policy planning division of the LDP. Long known as the Mr. soft spoken, amiable, dovish politician he has quickly demonstrated his ability to adjust with varying opinions that makes him look like a “safe pair of hands” and more reliable to pursue consensus politics. While showing his will for political accommodation on the one hand, he has tried to assert his individuality stating, “I, Fumio Kishida” (a rare way of expression in Japan’s harmony driven political culture) “have a special skill of listening to people.” He thought it important to make such a commitment as response to perceived democratic deficiency due to growing chasm between the public and the leadership on the issue of COVID-19 and the Olympics.

Domestic Priorities

In the very first press conference following his victory in the party leadership contest Kishida briefly indicated his priorities on various issues but after his election as the Prime Minister on 4th October he has clearly cut out a task for himself by announcing general election on 31 October with less than a month on his hand. Thus his first mission as Prime Minister will be to lead the LDP to victory in an upcoming general election. This he intends to do by bridging the perceived disaffection between the public and the ruling party that seem to have appeared in the wake of COVID-19 surge during the Olympics. He admitted to having sensed a kind of political crisis for Japan’s democracy and his party’s desperate need to quickly turn around plunging public support ahead of lower house elections. Putting at stake his personal reputation he has stated “I am determined to make an effort toward making a more open LDP and a bright future for Japan together with you all.” In a manner of building a personal dialogue with the people he asserted that “My skill is to really listen to people”. He called upon his fellow party men to show the general public that ‘the LDP has been reborn,’

A short gap between his becoming the Prime Minister and the general election on 31 October is more of an opportunity than a challenge. Having put the opposition on a defensive turf he quickly needs to instill a sense of confidence among the general public about the LDP as the paternal party to ensure a robust democracy with peace, stability and the ability to raise the country’s international profile. In order to assuage popular discontent over COVID-19 issues he has already announced the creation of Health Crisis Management Agency. Accelerating Taro Kono’s vaccination campaign is certain to take care of these concerns.

On the economic front the Bank of Japan’s tankan survey has already reported positive developments bolstering his confidence. The headline index gauging big manufacturers’ sentiment stood at plus 18 in July-September, up from plus 14 in the previous quarter and exceeding market forecasts for plus 13. Big non-manufacturers’ sentiment index improved to plus 2 from plus 1 in June, beating a median market forecast for a flat reading and posting a fifth straight quarter of improvement. The survey bodes well for Fumio Kishida, who has succeeded Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga with a mandate to revitalise the economy and distribute more wealth among households. Large companies expect to increase capital expenditure by 10.1% in the current fiscal year to offset some of the weakness in consumption. A 30 trillion yen stimulus waiting on the table will certainly do the required magic to uplift popular sentiment and support for the ruling LDP.

As part of medium to long term economic policy Kishida is promising for a “new capitalism” of growth and distribution to narrow the income gap between the rich and the poor that has widened during the crisis period starting ‘the lost two decades.’ “I will start a positive cycle of growth and distribution to raise people’s income” asserts the new Prime Minister. Looking at the history of Japan’s economic development this policy can hardly be called “new capitalism” it is more of a re-invocation of Japanese style classical capitalism. Throughout the economic development phase of 1950s through 1980s Japan pursued a policy of equitable distribution of wealth. Japan’s export led growth strategy was accompanied by pragmatic policies of expanding domestic market through equitable income distribution and raising people’s purchasing power.

In the economic domain declining work force and the aging population remain an important part of agenda. The new occupant of Kantei may find it difficult to pursue anything different than the policy prescription of his former boss Abe Shinzo.

Japan’s future economic growth is closely tied to its vision of carbon free economy by 2050. During the summer Olympics Japan demonstrated array of clean technologies towards this goal. Kishida also pledged to promote clean energy technology to turn climate change measures into growth opportunities, hence the proposed 30 trillion yen stimulus will certainly be geared to offer generous economic recovery package.

Security and Foreign Policy

Throughout the post war period Japan-US Security Alliance has provided a stable framework for Japan’s pursuit of defence and foreign policy. Abe Shinzo provided necessary vigour to this time-tested arrangement. However, a slide in US power in recent years has caused serious concerns about Japan’s future. Fast changing security environment around Japan in recent years has aggravated such worries leading to a crisis of confidence. Cognizant of such perceived security concerns Kishida has called for further increase in Japan’s defence capability and budget. Staunch advocate of close relations with Taiwan he has also vowed to stand up to China in tensions over Taiwan and Beijing’s crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong. He wants to strengthen Japan’s coastguard and would push for the passing of a resolution condemning treatment of China’s Uighur minority. He is keen to appoint an aide to monitor the Uighurs’ human rights. Much like Abe, Kishida has to manage a tough balancing act to preserve Japan’s vital economic ties with China. Kishida supports close Japan-US security ties and partnerships with other like-minded democracies in Asia and Europe to counter any security threat.

In pursuit of Japan’s long term foreign policy goals he has promised to pursue “important issues related to Japan’s future” through a vision of “a free and open Indo-Pacific”. Nuclearisation of Indo-Pacific is fast becoming a strategic reality. How long Japan will be able to maintain its anti-nuclear policy in isolation will become a matter of serious consideration in not so distant future.

Fumio Kishida and India

Although Post war India – Japan relations can be said to have taken major step towards bilateral economic cooperation since 2000 with the visit of Prime Minister Yoshio Mori. But the Modi-Abe bonhomie since 2014 catapulted the relationship to newer heights encompassing almost every sector of development. Abe Shinzo is credited to be the chief architect of Japan’s 21st century foreign policy centred on Indo-Pacific vision. India has emerged as the sheet anchor for the success of Japan’s Indo-Pacific project. It is important to mention that Kishida became the longest serving Foreign Minister under Abe administration. Along with Yoshihide Suga, Fumio Kishida was the chief designer of Abe’s foreign and security policies. Therefore, it is quite logical to surmise that Abe’s legacy in India-Japan relations will continue.

Moreover, optimism within the Indian establishment can derive its credence from Kishida’s personal commitments made during his visit to India in 2015 when he delivered Fifteenth Sapru House Lecture on “Special Partnership for the Era of the Indo-Pacific”. At the outset, Kishida made it a point to emphasise how he has chosen India as the first destination of his foreign visit after his reappointment as the Foreign Minister because Japan and India enjoy a special partnership that will determine the direction of Asia in the 21st century. Following Abe’s footsteps Kishida extended Japan’s ardent support to Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative aimed at becoming a major economic growth centre for the Indo-Pacific region and the world. An economically and militarily strong India is the inexorable necessity in Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy which is anchored on a web of economic networks and trade routes and resilient supply chains. Outlining his vision of close India –Japan relations to ensure peace and prosperity he proposed the strengthening of ‘three bridges’ of ‘value and spirit, ‘vibrant economy’ and a bridge of ‘open and stable seas’. Among other objectives of ‘peace, security and open seas’ a civilisational connect is eminently important in Japan’s pursuit of Indo-Pacific vision. Japan aims to emerge as the ‘Flower Power’ progenitor of new Indo-Pacific civilisation based on the values of Brahmanical Buddha. This is not Kishida’s individual aspiration; it is the collective vision of the Japanese people. It is no surprise that he invoked the universal values and spirit of Buddhism as the common denominator for a bridge between India-Japan. In this context Japan’s association with India is an absolute necessity.

Connectivity and open and stable seas are the essential elements of Indo-Pacific vision that demands proactive co-operation in maritime security. Since both India and Japan are maritime nations a close cooperation in maritime strategy is an imperative. Developing Indo-Pacific as the vibrant economic centre for the growth of global economy demands multiple areas of connectivity such as South – Southeast Asia through both land and sea. SAARC and ASEAN connectivity for which Japan is committed to support the development of India’s Northeastern region.

He was quite forthcoming on the issue of UN reform agenda involving the Security Council. He proposed for bilateral as well cooperative effort by G-4 to achieve this goal. He maintained that reform of UN Security Council is important to fight terrorism.

In the context of Open and Stable seas he recognized the importance of defense cooperation through defense equipment and Japan’s participation in Malabar exercises.

Indian establishment can hope for stable and continuing rise in bilateral cooperation for peace, progress and prosperity.

This article first appeared in www.vifindia.org and it belongs to them.