By Yuri Momoi, Nikkei deputy editor
TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stocked his new cabinet and ruling party leadership with political heavyweights vying for his post, bringing into sharp relief the rivalry expected to play out over the next two years until a new leader is selected.
Some speculate that Abe deliberately assembled his team to let potential successors compete against each other. With Shinjiro Koziumi, the popular son of a former prime minister, also joining the cabinet, Japan’s political circles are suddenly immersed in a guessing game of who will emerge victorious.
Japanese prime ministers are chosen from among members of parliament, and then appointed ceremonially by the emperor. There are no provisions in the constitution or Japanese law that set term limits for a prime minister.
But the ruling Liberal Democratic Party currently stipulates that the party leader can only serve three terms for a total of nine years, and that party rule thus serves as the de facto maximum term for the prime minister.
With his term as party leader expiring in two years, in September 2021, the choice of Abe’s successor is one of the hottest topics for the LDP.
It is in fact a crowded field. Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Fumio Kishida has been seen as a potential successor ever since Abe returned to power in 2012. Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s longtime chief cabinet secretary, has gained a new following after his high-profile unveiling of the new era name earlier this year. Taro Kono, who raised his profile as foreign minister, will try to gain further traction now as defense minister. Toshimitsu Motegi, who put together a trade deal with the U.S., received the high-profile foreign minister post. Katsunobu Kato, a close adviser to Abe, became health and labor minister while Koizumi was appointed environment minister.
There is also a post-Abe candidate who did not make the cut for the cabinet: Abe’s longtime political rival Shigeru Ishiba. He challenged Abe in the party presidential race in 2012 and 2018 and has long been considered a leading candidate to succeed Abe.
Right after Abe took office, he gave this combative rival some recognition by putting him in such key posts as the party secretary-general. But Ishiba has been denied a party or cabinet post in recent reshuffles. His faction was the only one that did not receive a post in the latest revamp. With Ishiba continuing to attack his government, Abe has changed tack and sidelined him.
Koizumi, the son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koziumi, is currently the most popular among voters, with 20% naming him as the person they would like to see as prime minister in a poll conducted by Nikkei between Sept. 11 and 12. But the number is down 9 points from the previous survey conducted in August.
Koziumi was followed by Abe, who garnered 16% support down 2 points from August, and Ishiba, with 15%.
In each of the five times Nikkei asked the post-Abe question, starting in August 2017, Koizumi, Abe and Ishiba have consistently ranked as top choices.
But the cabinet shake-up has lifted other candidates. Kono rose to 8%, followed by Kishida and Suga, who both garnered 7%.
Motegi inched up to 2% while Yukio Edano, leader of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party received 4%.
As the fourth generation lawmaker of the political dynasty, the younger Koizumi has ranked high among potential prime minister candidates since he was in his 20s. Now 38, he is the third youngest cabinet member in postwar Japan.
Koizumi received his master’s degree from New York’s Columbia University and did a stint at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
His marriage to Christel Takigawa, a popular news anchor, in August made headlines. Because the couple are expecting a baby early next year, speculation is rife over whether the lawmaker will take paternity leave after the child’s arrival.
A telegenic, eloquent speaker, Koizumi has won a following for his pointed criticisms of the government. Now a cabinet member, Koizumi will have to choose his words more carefully. As chief of the environment ministry, he will also be tested on his leadership ability and his capacity as a politician during parliamentary questioning.
Ishiba is the son of an ex-governor of Tottori Prefecture. After a brief career as a banker, he was elected to the lower house in 1986 as the youngest member, at 28. His rather nerdish hobbies, railroads and plastic models of war vessels, seem to be contributing to his image of an accessible lawmaker.
He lost to Abe in the LDP presidential election in 2012. But he placed first in the initial round of voting thanks to overwhelming support among local members. One of the most knowledgeable lawmakers on national security, he is also well-versed in agricultural policy. When he was the party secretary-general, he traveled almost every weekend to listen to those outside Tokyo. But as he and his faction are sidelined by Abe, he is becoming isolated within the party.
Kono’s father, Yohei, and his grandfather Ichiro were both lawmakers who served in top party and cabinet posts. He learned under Madeleine Albright at Georgetown University, who later became U.S. secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.
After working at companies including Fuji Xerox, Kono was elected to the lower house in 1996 and ran for LDP president in 2009. Since becoming foreign minister in August 2017, Kono has aggressively toured overseas, with the number of foreign visits totaling 123.
Fluent in English, Kono handled many meetings with his counterparts without an interpreter. He is also adept at social media, using Twitter and a blog to reach out to the public. Boasting over 900,000 Twitter followers, Kono casually tweets back, adding to his popularity among young people. As Japan-South Korea relations deteriorated, he maintained a tough stance toward Seoul drawing cheers online.
Kishida is serving his ninth term as a lower house member, the same as Abe. He is the leader of the Kishida faction, which derives from the prestigious Kochi faction established in 1957. After Abe returned to power in 2012, Kishida served as his foreign minister for five years.
Not prone to gaffs, Kishida is a stable presence but is also not a dynamic person. Instead of winning the presidency through competition, he is reportedly aiming to be tapped as the heir apparent to succeed Abe. He was hoping for the party secretary-general post in the latest shake-up. The party secretary-general is a powerful position that oversees party elections and the funds that finance them. Landing that position would mean a leg up in the succession race. But he was reappointed as the party policy chief, making his prospects murkier.
Suga has been Abe’s chief cabinet secretary since he became prime minister a second time. As the longest-serving government spokesperson, he has leveraged his power over personnel matters to get bureaucracies to stand behind the government and has served as a linchpin to the Abe government.
He also took the lead on popular policies, like bringing mobile rates down and attracting more foreign tourists, which contributed to Abe’s strong approval ratings.
The 70-year-old is the eldest son of a strawberry farmer in Akita Prefecture. He began his political career as a regional lawmaker, then steadily climbed up the ladder to the national stage.
He has mostly stayed out of the spotlight. But he recently rose to prominence after announcing the name of Japan’s new imperial era, and now attracts crowds of younger supporters when he tours the country.
Motegi has held a number of key posts, including economy and trade minister and the LDP’s campaign chief.
He has held seven round of talks with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer since April as Japan’s lead negotiator to work out a bilateral trade deal. Described by U.S. President Donald Trump as a “tough” man, Motegi has Abe’s trust.
Kato is a former Finance Ministry bureaucrat. He entered the political arena after marrying the daughter of former Agriculture Minister Mutsuki Kato, who was a close aide of Abe’s father.
After serving in cabinet posts handling high-profile policy initiatives, like reforming Japan’s work culture, he was appointed chairman of the LDP General Council last year, making him one of the party’s top four officials. Now as the health and labor minister, Kato will be in charge of ensuring social benefits extend to all generations, one of the government’s top initiatives.
The new cabinet will test the capabilities of Japan’s potential next prime ministers, with the exception of Ishiba.
But Abe himself cannot be discounted. Opinion polls indicate that he is the second-most popular candidate to be the next prime minister.
LDP rules previously capped its presidents at two terms for a total of six years, meaning Abe was set to step down in September 2018. He was granted a third term thanks to a change in the rules.
Some party members are now pushing for Abe to try for a fourth term. “If he decides to, I will back him with the rest of the party,” said Toshihiro Nikai, who was reappointed the LDP’s secretary-general.
Abe’s current term is set to expire at the end of September 2021. The succession race has already begun, though it remains to be seen whether a clear front-runner will emerge out of the crowded pool, or whether Abe ends up as his own successor.