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Fumio Kishida’s Principles Are About to Be Put to the Test

Japan’s new prime minister is the moderate face of a party dominated by its right wing.

Fumio Kishida
Fumio Kishida at his office in Tokyo on Sept. 3. Shoko Takayasu/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In August 2017, Shinzo Abe, then in the fifth year of his second tenure as Japan’s prime minister, reshuffled his cabinet in a bid to stabilize falling approval ratings. Among the changes he made was to name Fumio Kishida, who had served as foreign minister since December 2012, as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) policy chief.

Shortly after assuming the new post, which coordinates policy between the government and ruling party, Kishida sought to distance himself from the prime minister whose cabinet he had just left. “Prime Minister Abe and I were elected to the House of Representatives at the same time, and we’ve been personally extremely close,” he said. “However, if you speak plainly about our philosophies and beliefs as politicians, the prime minister is conservative, dare I say hawkish. I am liberal, dovish.”

Kishida would argue that they could still cooperate effectively, but he would also spend much of the following year contemplating a run for the LDP’s leadership in 2018, a bid that would have pitted Kishida, the leader of the Kochikai, historically the LDP’s most liberal faction, against the conservative Abe. In the end, Kishida disappointed his supporters by staying out of the race and pledging his faction’s support for Abe’s reelection.

In August 2017, Shinzo Abe, then in the fifth year of his second tenure as Japan’s prime minister, reshuffled his cabinet in a bid to stabilize falling approval ratings. Among the changes he made was to name Fumio Kishida, who had served as foreign minister since December 2012, as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) policy chief.

Shortly after assuming the new post, which coordinates policy between the government and ruling party, Kishida sought to distance himself from the prime minister whose cabinet he had just left. “Prime Minister Abe and I were elected to the House of Representatives at the same time, and we’ve been personally extremely close,” he said. “However, if you speak plainly about our philosophies and beliefs as politicians, the prime minister is conservative, dare I say hawkish. I am liberal, dovish.”

Kishida would argue that they could still cooperate effectively, but he would also spend much of the following year contemplating a run for the LDP’s leadership in 2018, a bid that would have pitted Kishida, the leader of the Kochikai, historically the LDP’s most liberal faction, against the conservative Abe. In the end, Kishida disappointed his supporters by staying out of the race and pledging his faction’s support for Abe’s reelection.

Last week, however, Kishida’s turn finally arrived. After conducting an effective campaign that first convinced Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga not to seek reelection, Kishida then successfully outmaneuvered popular favorite Taro Kono to win the leadership by a convincing margin on Sept. 29. Now, having been confirmed on Oct. 4, Kishida has become the first prime minister from the Kochikai since 1993.


Whereas Kishida had once contemplated running against Abe, his successful leadership bid ultimately depended upon his willingness to embrace conservative positions on key issues— including strengthening Japan’s military power, taking a harder line on China, and revising the constitution—which helped secure his victory. That shift will be cemented by Kishida appointing conservative allies of the former prime minister to key posts in the LDP’s leadership and the cabinet.

It is tempting to dismiss these compromises as purely opportunistic. But Kishida’s rise is ultimately the story of how the LDP’s moderates have had to make their peace with the party’s shift to the right since the end of the Cold War.

During the Cold War, the LDP was a notoriously fractious party united mostly around anti-communism. The party was effectively a truce between the followers of the dominant postwar Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida—who had promulgated Japan’s new so-called peace constitution, accepted an unequal security alliance with the United States, and supported only a modest rearmament—and right-wing critics, including Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who wanted Japan to rearm and pursue a more independent foreign policy.

These two schools—and later a third, articulated by eventual Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, that focused mainly on distributing the fruits of Japan’s economic miracle to the underdeveloped countryside—fought bitterly, with stretches of cutthroat infighting punctuated by the occasional armistice.

By the early 1990s, this uneasy peace collapsed. Anti-communism no longer worked as a glue, and high-profile corruption scandals and the onset of what became known as the “lost decades” of the country’s economic stagnation discredited the party and led to calls for reform from within the LDP. As a result, the LDP splintered and then briefly lost power in 1993 to a ragtag coalition that included both LDP offshoots and the traditional left-wing opposition.

In the wake of this chaos, the LDP’s right wing sought control of the party. Sidelined for much of the Cold War—they were referred to as the “anti-mainstream”—right-wing politicians, particularly from the new wave of politicians elected in the 1990s, accumulated power, calling for measures to strengthen Japan and boost national pride.

They would gain the upper hand by the turn of the century, and they have effectively dominated the party ever since, capped off by Abe’s record-setting tenure as prime minister from 2012 to 2020. The once-marginalized right wing has become the mainstream, and its moderate and liberal rivals have become the anti-mainstream, to the extent that they have even survived in the party.


Kishida holds a news conference at the foreign ministry in Tokyo on Dec. 28, 2012, after his appointment as Japan's new foreign minister.

Kishida holds a news conference at the foreign ministry in Tokyo on Dec. 28, 2012, after his appointment as Japan’s new foreign minister. KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

Kishida’s career has entirely coincided with the long-term decline of the liberal wing that was his political birthright. Born in Tokyo in 1957 to a family with a long history in Hiroshima, he was the eldest son of Fumitake Kishida, an official at the powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Hiroshima is critical to Kishida’s political identity. It is not only the symbolic home of Japanese anti-militarism but also a heartland of the LDP’s liberal tendency, as the Kochikai faction’s founder, Hayato Ikeda, hailed from the prefecture.

Ikeda had assumed the premiership in 1960, after Nobusuke Kishi’s heavy-handed pursuit of a new security treaty with the United States triggered protests that toppled his government. Ikeda responded by pursuing a politics of “tolerance and patience” and focusing on fostering broad-based economic growth. These would become his faction’s bedrock principles.

The Kishida family was drawn into this tradition when Fumio’s father left the bureaucracy for politics in 1978, seeking election to Japan’s legislature, the National Diet, from Hiroshima as a Kochikai member. While other experiences would shape Kishida’s commitment to a liberalism that emphasizes fairness, equality, and peace—such as the racial discrimination he experienced as an elementary school student in a New York City public school when his father was dispatched to the United States in the mid-1960s—his birthplace and his father’s membership meant there was little question that he too would join the Kochikai when he ran for the Diet after his father died in 1992.

Kishida’s election in 1993 coincided with the end of the government of Kiichi Miyazawa, a relative of his father’s by marriage and, it turned out, the last LDP prime minister from the Kochikai until Kishida.

In the intervening decades, the faction dwindled and fragmented multiple times, including after its leader launched an ill-fated attempt to unseat Yoshiro Mori, an unpopular right-wing prime minister, in 2000. Kishida supported that revolt as a young lawmaker, and, after seeing the faction shattered and the ringleaders lose their influence, he learned that confronting the ascendant right wing directly could have unfortunate consequences.

Instead, he quietly acquired seniority and expertise out of the spotlight. While Abe, first elected the same year as Kishida, raced to the LDP’s highest levels, Kishida plodded along, serving in lower-level party leadership posts, receiving his first cabinet post in the last days of Abe’s first government in 2007, and working with other liberals to try to reassemble the fractured Kochikai.


Kishida raises his fist in the air with his faction members after announcing his candidacy for LDP leadership during a meeting in Tokyo on Sept. 1, 2020.

Kishida raises his fist in the air with his faction members after announcing his candidacy for LDP leadership during a meeting in Tokyo on Sept. 1, 2020. CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images

All the while, Kishida sought to articulate the role that the LDP’s liberals could play in a party dominated by right-wing conservatives. For Kishida, liberalism in the LDP is fundamentally about political style, not policy. He has drawn upon the history of his own faction to offer a vision for what role it can play.

First of all, he argued, his political antecedents were, above all, realists. “One of the characteristics of this group of people,” he said in a parliamentary debate in 2015, “is that in postwar politics they did not get caught up in any particular ideology or principle but instead thought things through extremely realistically and formulated policies based on realism.” The policies that became associated with the Kochikai—a lightly armed Japan allied to the United States that prioritized investment in economic growth over military power—were a response to specific conditions, not eternal truths. What policies are appropriate can and should change over time.

Second, Kishida asserted, the LDP’s liberals should be a force for balance. For example, in a New Year’s letter to his supporters in 2005, he acknowledged the party “[newly] emphasizes strong leadership, U.S.-centered diplomacy, and hawkishness”—alluding to the agenda of the LDP’s right wing. But then he added this caveat: “I am not denying the significance of each of these, but I believe that balance is the key.” The party’s liberal wing, as he saw it, was necessary to keep conservatives from losing touch with political realities.

Finally, according to Kishida, Japan’s leaders must act humbly, take care not to abuse their power, be receptive to the ideas of different people, and secure the public’s consent. During his recent campaign for the LDP’s leadership, he argued it all came down to listening. “I believe that listening to people is the starting point of trust,” he said. “And I have the ability to listen better than anyone else.” This belief stands in marked contrast to, for example, Abe, who when faced with public opposition to a policy would emphasize the need to explain again why his approach was best.

Ultimately, Kishida believes that Japan will not be able to overcome the serious challenges it faces without these principles. “Unimaginable turmoil and national crisis await in our future,” he wrote in 2020. “Because it is that kind of age, a thorough sense of realism and balance are strongly required. That cannot be achieved without the cooperation of the people. And we cannot ask the people for cooperation without restoring trust in politics.”


For Kishida, these beliefs justified finding a way to work with the LDP’s right wing instead of battling it for control of the party. But while it was one thing to bring moderation to government while serving as Abe’s foreign minister, Kishida will face an entirely different challenge as the prime minister himself. No longer the liberal counterweight in a government led by an archconservative, he is now the moderate face of a party still dominated by its right wing.

This will put Kishida’s principles to the test. He could end up caught between his commitment to a humbler style of politics and the demands of his conservative allies. At some point he will likely have to make a high-stakes decision—whether on defense spending, constitutional revision, or how to balance relations between China and Taiwan—that could alienate either the public or the LDP right. In that moment, Kishida will show whether the LDP’s liberals are just a vestigial relic of the Cold War, or whether they have a vital role to play in leading Japan into a tumultuous future.

Tobias Harris is a senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress and the author of The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan. Twitter: @observingjapan

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