Analysis

Japan’s Foreign Minister Faces Tough Calls on China

Yoshimasa Hayashi breaks the pattern of factional appointments.

By , a Tokyo-based journalist.
Yoshimasa Hayashi, set to become Japan's new foreign minister, leaves the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Nov. 10.
Yoshimasa Hayashi, set to become Japan's new foreign minister, leaves the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Nov. 10. Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

Fresh from a surprisingly strong showing at recent parliamentary elections, Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has moved to put his imprint on foreign policy with a foreign minister appointment that puts experience and an international pedigree above factional ruling party politics. That’s a rare thing in Japan—and it has brought its own slate of criticisms.

Cabinet appointments in Japan have traditionally been doled out as favors to the various factions within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled Japan almost continuously since its foundation in 1955. The posts are frequently shifted long before ministers are able to implement any meaningful policies. And in some legendary embarrassments, it has become clear that the appointed policymakers often lacked the expertise required. In the most glaring case in recent years, the cybersecurity minister appointed in 2018 admitted that he had never used a computer.

In contrast, in appointing the internationally known Yoshimasa Hayashi as foreign minister, Kishida has sent a signal on how he wants to conduct foreign policy—and at the same time has ignored the warnings of two of the party’s most powerful figures, former prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso.

Fresh from a surprisingly strong showing at recent parliamentary elections, Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has moved to put his imprint on foreign policy with a foreign minister appointment that puts experience and an international pedigree above factional ruling party politics. That’s a rare thing in Japan—and it has brought its own slate of criticisms.

Cabinet appointments in Japan have traditionally been doled out as favors to the various factions within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled Japan almost continuously since its foundation in 1955. The posts are frequently shifted long before ministers are able to implement any meaningful policies. And in some legendary embarrassments, it has become clear that the appointed policymakers often lacked the expertise required. In the most glaring case in recent years, the cybersecurity minister appointed in 2018 admitted that he had never used a computer.

In contrast, in appointing the internationally known Yoshimasa Hayashi as foreign minister, Kishida has sent a signal on how he wants to conduct foreign policy—and at the same time has ignored the warnings of two of the party’s most powerful figures, former prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso.

Hayashi’s qualifications for the job are not in doubt. He is a graduate from the prestigious University of Tokyo and holds a master’s degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Highly fluent in English, he served in Washington as an aide to Rep. Stephen Neal of North Carolina and Sen. William Roth of Delaware. More recently, he has been a frequent speaker at U.S. foreign policy events. He was first elected to Japan’s upper house of parliament in 1995 and is also a seasoned veteran of various cabinet posts, often brought in when a steady hand was needed following scandal. His experience includes stints as economy minister, farm and fisheries minister, defense minister and education minister.

According to Japanese media reports, the two LDP doyens’ opposition to Hayashi came from two main concerns. At the level of party politics, Abe and Aso complained that Hayashi was a newly elected member of the lower house of parliament, joining just this year after spending 26 years in the less-powerful upper house. Therefore, in the hierarchy-conscious world that has traditionally guided Japanese politics and business, he was supposed to wait his turn.

The second complaint was more substantive. The two believe that Hayashi is weak on standing up to China. The desire to oppose China has gained momentum as Beijing asserts what it believes is its proper position as the powerhouse of Asia and at least an equal to the United States. Increasingly bellicose statements from Chinese officials, territorial claims covering vast bodies of water in Asia, and a willingness to use economic power to punish perceived foes have all contributed to an increasingly anti-China mood among Japanese politicians. This has been matched by increasingly vocal support for Taiwan, which now has its own economic leverage through its virtual lock on high-end computer chips that power much of global technology, an approach also finding favor in Washington.

But others say Hayashi is unlikely to go soft on Beijing. “Hayashi is more a principled liberal than Kishida is, but he is also very pro-U.S. I don’t think that he will contradict the U.S. policy on China head on,” said Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Tokyo’s Sophia University.

Hayashi himself has tackled the question head on. In a news conference on Nov. 11, he announced that he was resigning as chairman of the Japan-China Friendship Parliamentarians’ Union, a non-partisan group of lawmakers seeking good relations with Beijing. He said the decision was aimed at preventing “any unnecessary misunderstanding” about his role as foreign minister. He also echoed Japan’s concerns about China’s actions. “We are seeing more serious challenges to universal values, which have sustained peace and the stability of the international community, and the international order,” Hayashi said, wording often used by Japan to signal its unease.

While Hayashi’s appointment might be greeted with relief in Beijing, Kishida also signaled that Japan’s new, tougher line over human rights in China will remain. He announced this week that former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani would become special advisor on human rights issues, with a focus on China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, and pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong. Nakatani is also part of a group in parliament drawing up legislation that will enable Japan to impose sanctions on countries over human rights abuses. Although Japan has talked about China’s human rights actions, it has thus far failed to take any concrete action comparable to the U.S. sanctions on Chinese officials or import bans of products from the Uyghur region of Xinjiang.

Some analysts said that Kishida’s goal with the appointments was to offer a more nuanced policy than the more hawkish Abe, who stepped down in 2019 after becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. “While the new post shows the Japanese government is generally in sync with the United States in its China policy, the choice of Nakatani, like the choice of Hayashi for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, indicates that Kishida does not want to be a messenger boy for Abe and for his more ideological and hardline anti-China policy stance,” Nakano, of Sophia University, said.

At the same time, the previous Japanese policy of separating the country’s political attitude toward China from the duo’s close trade relationship seems to be fraying.

“There is a consensus in Tokyo that China is a ‘problem’ and a threat in some ways,” said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo. “Some see it as an enormous and imminent danger; others might be somewhat less concerned, but that doesn’t mean they see Beijing as a benign actor.”

Given his close international ties, Hayashi appears to be in a strong position to navigate the difficult issues of maintaining the U.S. alliance while keeping trade with China flowing. That’s assuming he has enough time in office to make a difference.

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based journalist who has been a contributor to Foreign Policy since 2015. He has been following Japan’s politics and economics for more than 20 years, working at Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. He is also the co-author of a 2021 book on the Carlos Ghosn affair and its impact on Japan.

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