BY TOMOHIRO OSAKI, STAFF WRITER
The family resemblance is unmistakable between former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Nobuo Kishi, his younger brother and the country’s new defense minister.
But it’s not just Kishi’s facial features and slicked-back hair that evoke images of the nation’s longest-serving prime minister. Past statements suggest the 61-year-old is also aligned with his brother ideologically, having spent his career championing hawkish attitudes in defense and diplomacy, nationalist views on history and the strengthening of ties with Taiwan.
Kishi is one of the few new faces in the fledgling Cabinet of Yoshihide Suga, who officially became the nation’s 99th prime minister Wednesday.
Adopted into his maternal family line while still an infant, Kishi is a grandson of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. Kishi’s childhood relationship with Abe was tenuous at best: Kishi once confessed to having built a “complicated relationship” with his older brother, having had no inkling as a child that the two were siblings.
“When I was a child, I saw my brother as a cousin. He knew I was his younger brother, but for me he wasn’t quite a brother but a cousin,” Kishi told an internet program hosted by the Liberal Democratic Party in 2013.
But while opportunities may have been scarce for Kishi to forge a brotherly bond with Abe, he found himself in close proximity to his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi — whose ideology Abe inherited — until adolescence. In an interview with the Sankei Shimbun daily in 2015, Kishi said he spent the first 10-plus years of his life living with his grandfather in Tokyo.
As an adult, Kishi initially shunned politics, landing a job at merchandising giant Sumitomo Corp. as an elite food trader — an experience that proved to be beneficial for him when he entered the political arena with a focus on diplomacy and defense.
In 2004, backed by his brother — who was the secretary-general of the LDP at the time — he was elected to the Upper House to represent a district of Yamaguchi Prefecture, long considered a bastion of conservative forces.
In a gamble that saw him fight for the reputation of his political dynasty, Kishi quit his Upper House seat and declared his candidacy ahead of the 2012 general election. His mission was to wrestle back control for the LDP from the rival Democratic Party of Japan in a Yamaguchi district that Nobusuke Kishi and his brother Eisaku Sato — also a former prime minister — originally carved out and long groomed as their fortress. Kishi successfully avenged his ancestors by regaining an LDP seat, launching his career as a Lower House lawmaker.
Over the years, Kishi has committed himself to a slew of defense-related positions, including as deputy foreign minister, Lower House security committee chairman and head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s foreign affairs committee.
Another defining aspect of Kishi’s career is his strong ties with Taiwan.
Chairman of a lawmakers’ group seeking to promote economic and cultural exchanges between Japan and Taiwan, Kishi has over the years served as a liaison with Taiwan officials, a role that culminated with the initiative he took in arranging then-opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with Abe in his hometown of Yamaguchi Prefecture in 2015.
This kinship with Taiwan is something that runs in his family: Nobusuke Kishi is said to have cultivated a close rapport with ex-Taiwan leader Chiang Kai-shek.
Like his brother, Kishi is also an advocate for constitutional amendment, declaring the revision of the pacifist postwar Constitution — which was one of Abe’s unfinished ambitions — as his top policy priority on his website.
When polled by the media ahead of a Lower House election in 2012 that returned the LDP to power, he stood by the rather radical position that Japan should consider arming itself with nuclear weapons if required by the changing landscape of an international society.
In his inaugural news conference as defense chief Wednesday night, Kishi didn’t clarify whether he still holds this view. Speaking only in the capacity of defense minister, he said “Japan’s nuclear armament will never happen,” reiterating the long-held government stance that the world’s only country to be struck with nuclear weapons during warfare strictly eschews the acquisition and manufacturing of nuclear weapons.
In an interview with conservative magazine Seiron last year, Kishi, asked about U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda, also obliquely backed the idea of Japan acquiring a strike capability to better defend itself against the threat of nuclear-armed North Korea.
“The Japan-U.S. security alliances guarantees that the U.S. military is responsible for the role of ‘attack,’ but I do understand there is a concern that we shouldn’t rely solely on America to deal with a situation that could imperil our nation’s survival,” he told the magazine.
Kishi’s conservative attitude has underlined his view on history, too. Like many traditionalists, he said in the past he was opposed to female members of the imperial family retaining their royal status after marrying commoners.
In a 2011 blog entry, Kishi decried what he alleged was an attempt by the leftist Japan Teachers Union to make less assertive the way history textbooks in Japan describe the nation’s territorial sovereignty.
He said textbooks shouldn’t instill in pupils a “masochistic” perception of history, while calling for a more nationalist shift in the depiction of issues such as the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s and territorial disputes with South Korea, China and Russia.
On the 66th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2011, Kishi blogged about his frustration with a speech that Prime Minister Naoto Kan delivered at an annual war memorial service.
In the speech, Kan hewed to his predecessors in acknowledging Japan had “caused tremendous damage and suffering” to the people of Asia and expressing his “feelings of profound remorse” — references Kishi slammed as inconsiderate toward families of the war dead in attendance at the ceremony.
Those key phrases of repentance were later axed by Abe after he swept back to power in December 2012, triggering criticism over what was widely seen as an attempt to downplay Japan’s responsibility for its imperial past.