BY ERIC JOHNSTON, STAFF WRITER
Newly elected Liberal Democratic Party president Fumio Kishida is a political veteran, former foreign minister and ex-senior party official who is less flamboyant, controversial and publicly popular than some other high-profile party members.
But those close to Kishida, who is effectively guaranteed to become prime minister next week due to the LDP’s majority in the Diet, say his political philosophy is one of stable realism and that this will define how he governs the party and the nation.
Though criticized as bland and indecisive following his loss to outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in the September 2020 LDP presidential race, he has grown tougher and more passionate, a fellow lawmaker said.
“Kishida is a decent guy. After he lost the presidency last year, it was very difficult for him to decide whether he wanted to run again,” said Upper House member Yoshimasa Hayashi, who belongs to the 46 member Kochikai party faction headed by Kishida. “But this time, his personality changed slightly. Once he decided to run, he became more of a fighter rather than remaining the kind of softer guy who just goes with the flow.”
The 64-year-old Kishida represents the city of Hiroshima. He’s a third-generation Diet member and is distantly related, via marriage, to former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who represented a district in Hiroshima Prefecture. Miyazawa, who also headed the Kochikai, governed between 1991 and 1993.
Before being elected to the Lower House in 1993, Kishida worked for the Long Term Credit Bank of Japan (LTCB) and then as a secretary to his lawmaker father, Fumitake, whose death in 1992 prompted his decision to run.
In a 2020 book outlining his worldview, Kishida cited a number of key moments in his life that shaped his political philosophy. As a child, Kishida lived briefly in New York, where he attended public schools and encountered racial discrimination, something he said made him determined to fight for justice and fairness.
Unlike many of Japan’s elite bureaucrats, politicians and business leaders, who typically graduate from Tokyo University, Kishida tried and failed to get in three times, before finally settling on Waseda University. There, he developed a passion for baseball, he said, and less so for studying. During his time with the LTCB, meanwhile, he says that he learned how to negotiate realistically but compassionately with businesses and their employees, and he took that knowledge into politics.
Although he has called himself a “dove,” pressure from former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who once viewed Kishida as his successor, has led the former foreign minister to say he will work to revise the Constitution to recognize the Self-Defense Forces.
Kishida was minister for Okinawa affairs between 2007 and 2008 during Abe’s first term and then under his successor Yasuo Fukuda, and he was later appointed foreign minister when Abe returned to power in December 2012.
He would go on to become Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister, before stepping down as joint foreign and defense minister in 2017 to take over as LDP Policy Research Council chair. During his tenure, he was responsible for the 2015 “final and irreversible” agreement with South Korea over so-called comfort women, a euphemism for those who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II. The issue has long fueled tensions between the two countries.
In 2016, Kishida met with then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during the Group of Seven foreign ministers meeting in Hiroshima, and he was instrumental in helping pave the way for U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to the city in May that year after the G7 leaders summit. Obama was the first sitting American president to ever visit the city, where the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945.
Now, as LDP president, he will serve as the party’s face in the upcoming general election, which will most likely take place on Nov. 7 or 14.
During his campaign for the LDP presidency, Kishida promised a new economic policy that would place more emphasis on the redistribution of wealth.
“There were things that didn’t really work” under a policy of not interfering with the free market, he said in announcing his economic policy last month. “The fruits of growth need to be distributed. Otherwise, divisions in society will deepen.”
To help prevent this, Kishida has promised to increase financial assistance to those who are renters, provide education subsidies for families with young children and raise wages in sectors facing labor shortages, especially health care, nursing and day care.
To deal with the COVID-19 crisis, he favors amending the law so that the government can force hospitals and medical facilities to set aside beds for coronavirus patients. He also supports the introduction of vaccine passports.
Within the LDP, he is pushing for reforms such as limiting the terms of party executives, except the president, to a maximum of three consecutive years, in order to prevent one person from amassing too much control over the party.
As a former foreign minister, Kishida takes office with a wealth of experience regarding Japan’s diplomatic and security relations.
Asked about his stance toward China, he has emphasized the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and he favors continued dialogue with Beijing. But he would not hesitate to speak up to defend what Japan believes in and work with like-minded democracies, especially its alliance partner the United States, on those issues.
“My position is basically to continue dialogue with China. At the same time, given the circumstances around the Senkaku Islands and the East and South China seas, I think Japan also needs to say what it needs to in regards to freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” he told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan last month.
To that end, he’s pledged to create a special adviser on human rights, whose portfolio would include alleged human rights abuses against the Muslim Uyghur minority in China’s far west Xinjiang region as well as crackdowns against pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
“Kishida, having been a foreign minister, is very realistic,” said Kochikai member Hayashi. “On China relations, realistic for Kishida means a very fine balance between public opinion and foreign policy requirements.
“Stability, continuity and realism are Kishida’s keywords for Japan’s foreign policy.”