Transcript: The “Post-Abe” era, Japan under Fumio Kishida

Fumio Kishida Paul Midford

Opening Jingle [00:00:02]

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:00:09]

Welcome to the Nordic Asia podcast. A collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen. I'm an anthropologist based in Oslo and also one of the leaders of the Norwegian Network for Asian Studies. In this episode, we focus on Japan under the new Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida. After nearly eight years in office as Japan's longest serving Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe resigned in August 2020. After a year of the transitional Yoshihide Suga administration Japan apparently got its first true post-Abe prime minister in the form of Kishida, who assumed office in October last year as actually Japan's prime minister number 100. Today we look at the new Kishida administration and discuss whether it will set Japan on a new course and to what extent it is still bound by the legacy of former Prime Minister Abe. We're joined today by Paul Midford, professor of political science at Meiji Gakuin University and the author of a recent book on Japan titledOvercoming Isolationism: Japan's Leadership in East Asian Security Multilateralism”. Professor Midford is also a former head of the steering committee of the Norwegian Network for Asian Studies before he left Norway for Japan not too long ago. Welcome, Paul. Or rather, I should say. Welcome back.

Paul Midford [00:01:37]

Thank you, Kenneth. It's great to be back.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:01:39]

And the reason I said welcome back is that you have been with us in the Nordic Asia podcast before. The two of us did an episode back in December 2020 that we titledJapan After Abe”, and we discussed, among other things, this legacy, his exit and also Suga's entry. Now, this was December 2020, of course, So to get us going and to update us, what's changed in Japanese politics since the previous episode?

Paul Midford [00:02:09]

Well, the two biggest changes in Japanese politics since December 2020. The first has been the selection of a new prime minister. Of course, for Fumio Kishida, who is arguably the first true post-Abe Prime Minister as Prime Minister Suga was really more of a transitional figure, though I'll come back to that at the end. The second major change is that Japan held a lower House election in October of 2021 and the LDP and its coalition partner, Komeito, they lost their two thirds majority in the lower house in that election, but did not do as badly as many had expected. They did relatively better than expected. The LDP lost about 15 seats. Moreover, the main opposition party actually lost seats and did worse than they expected. And a third more conservative opposition party made some gains.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:03:00]

So who is Kishida, this new prime minister of Japan? I know that he was Japan's longest serving foreign minister, at least in the country's post-war history, but he wasn't included in the Suga cabinet that followed Abe. Where does he come from? And what road to power has he traveled?

Paul Midford

Yes. Although born in Tokyo, Prime Minister Kishida family is from Hiroshima and like many members of the LDP, he is a third generation politician as both his father and grandfather were lower House members. However, Kishida started his career working as a banker before switching into politics by becoming his father's legislative secretary. And then he went on to be elected in his own right to the diet. For the first time in 1993, he was elected from Hiroshimas number one election district. Now, while eclipsing actually Prime Minister Abe's father for the bragging rights of being Japan's longest serving prime minister, Kishida, one of the more significant things he did, at least symbolically, is he played a pivotal role in arranging for Barack Obama to become the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima in 2016, to participate in the commemoration of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. Now, true to his Hiroshima roots, Kishida has personally promoted nuclear disarmament, although as prime minister, he has not committed to signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Now, in terms of LDP prime ministers, Kishida is the most moderate and dovish prime minister we have seen since the 1990s, and his road to power included challenging Suga for the premiership when Abe resigned in August 2020. He, of course, failed in that attempt and that's why he was not in Suga's cabinet. But he spent the year that Suga as prime minister preparing to challenge Suga again, and Suga proved to be very unpopular because of the Olympics, which were held in the middle of Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic. And more generally, Prime Minister Suga's handling of the pandemic at that time was made him quite unpopular. It was seen as not taking it very seriously and promoting the Olympics and economic interests over fighting the pandemic. And so when Sugar decided to resign, Kishida was there to step in, though he faced some stiff challenges from Kono Taro, the popular vaccine star at that time, and also from Ishiba Shigeru, who's a former defense minister. On a personal level, by the way, Kishida is a baseball fan and he enjoys alcohol a lot. Apparently, while Foreign Minister he challenged Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to drinking contests of vodka and a socket.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:05:45]

That's an interesting bio sketch, excluding some very detailed information here toward the end.

Paul Midford [00:05:51]

He would not lose, apparently.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:05:54]

Yeah, I think you called him earlier the first true – or the first real post- Abe prime minister. But I still want to hear a bit more whether you think he's actually likely to be a consequential prime minister or just another one of these one year short termer, like you mentioned now, Suga, who was ousted or left after just roughly a year. There's been a whole series of these one year prime ministers that we've seen, maybe especially in the years before Abe. And Prime Minister Noda says for around a year as the Hatoyama Kan, Aso, Fukuda to a whole list of short term, as you might say. I mean, I guess one could say that the Abe years were somewhat exceptional, at least in the recent political history of Japan, given for how long he was in office. Is Kishida going to be capable of replicating Abe on precisely this point?

Paul Midford [00:06:48]

Yeah, it's unlikely that Kishida will be able to compete with Abe in terms of longevity, since Abe is by far the longest prime minister in terms of longevity and by far beyond the average. Nonetheless, I would say that Kishida has a chance to be more than just a short one year Prime Minister. I think he has a good chance possibly of lasting at least for three years. His first real test will come this July during the Upper House elections in Japan. Now upper house elections are often more challenging for the LDP than our lower house elections. If the LDP does badly in the July upper house elections, Kishida may end up resigning, or at least his administration will be greatly weakened. If he is perceived, on the other hand, as winning the Upper House election. His longevity until at least fall 2024 will be almost assured, I would argue, and he will gain the political space to pursue his own agenda and to put former Prime Minister Abe more firmly in the rearview mirror. On the other hand, if it's perceived as losing the Upper House election, if he doesn't resign and he's able to hang on to power at least for a few months or more, in that case, Abe's influence over him will likely grow.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:07:58]

It's interesting that even though this is a podcast on Kishida, we spent almost as much time talking about Abe and it is quite hard to have a conversation about Japanese politics without the conversation gravitating towards Abe at quite regular intervals. I've seen some media reports that claim that Abe remains very influential within the LDP and that Kishida cannot easily ignore Abe's advice. Do you see Kishida at this stage as truly independent, or is he still beholden to Abe in order to maintain power, at least for the time being?

Paul Midford [00:08:34]

Yeah. A common refrain you see in the Japanese media is that Kishida owes his premiership to Abe. However, I look at that a little bit differently. In fact, Abe backed a rival during the LDP leadership race in September. The hawkish Takeichi Senai, however, and she only came in third place, a distant third place, and during the subsequent runoff between Kishida and, as I mentioned, the former vaccine czar and also former Defense and Foreign minister Kono Taro, Abe threw his support behind Kishida. Now Kishida appears to have repaid Abe by appointing Takeichi as the policy chief for the LDP. Yet one can argue that Abe owes Kishida as much as Kishida owes Abe, as it's thanks to Kishida that Abe was able to stop Kono Taro from becoming Prime minister. Kono, too, I should add, is arguably the most popular LDP politician among the Japanese public. Also, as I mentioned, because Takaichi came in a distant third in that leadership race, that result, I would argue, shows the limits of Abe's influence. Now, Kishida is unlikely to take any major policy initiatives beyond prioritizing the fight against COVID before the upper House election. And again, that will decide whether Abe's influence the results of that election will decide whether Abe's influence grows or shrinks.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:09:57]

Let's move into the the domain of foreign policy for a while given that Kishida comes from this ministerial position from earlier in his political life. I saw this December that the Diplomat wrote, and I quote now from an article in the Diplomat thateven from retirement, former Prime Minister Abe continues to cast a long shadow over Japan's foreign policy”. And the diplomat went on to add that Kishida faces high expectations for deft diplomacy because he was Japan's longest serving foreign minister in the post-war era. But in reality, Kishida never got much of a chance to shine because Abe was the de facto foreign minister. Do you share this assessment and the Diplomat I mean, will Kishida foreign policy be any different from that of Abe?

Paul Midford

Well, I think Kishida has already taken some steps to show his independence in foreign policy from Abe. A clear indicator of this and of the limits of Abe's influence is Kishida’s decision to choose Hayashi Yoshimasa as his foreign minister, despite Abe's opposition. Hayashi, who is a Top member of Kishidas Own faction is known to be relatively friendly to China, and he is a rival of an Abe ally in Abe's home prefecture of Yamaguchi. Incidentally, due to redistricting, Yamaguchi may lose one electoral district, which may throw Hayashi into direct competition with an Abe ally in that prefecture. And being foreign minister could help Hayashi to survive that contest. Now, as Japan's longest serving prime minister, Abe’s foreign policy varied widely as he perhaps is? Not too surprisingly, we can especially see this toward China, where Abe's policy range from confrontation during his early years in office during his second term from 2012 to 2015 and then later after 2015, Abe put a lot of effort into trying to improve the bilateral relationship with China. In fact, he had been planning to welcome President Xi Jinping to Japan in spring of 2020 to view the cherry blossoms together. This was going to be a very big and important state visit, even though there were backbenchers in the LDP, including from the more conservative wings of the party that Abe comes from, who are very much opposed to this. He was pushing forward with this, and after he came to office, Suga seemed to take the same position. So I expect that Kishida will continue the late Abe and Suga administration policy of seeking a stable, if not improved, relations with China. His selection of Hiyashi as foreign minister is one signal of that, and Kishida himself is known to be a bit of a dove and his faction has that reputation as well. Now that said, I think the more interesting question is not whether Kishida will continue Abe's foreign policy, but whether Kishida will follow the more hawkish policies that Abe has adopted since leaving office. So in terms of Taiwan, Kishida has followed Abe's lead to some extent by becoming the first Prime Minister - even Abe didn't do this while in office - to openly state that Taiwan security is vital for Japan's own security. On the other hand, he has not gone as far as Abe in effectively suggesting that Japan might join the U.S. in intervening if China invades Taiwan. On the question of whether Japan should acquire long range missiles capable of attacking enemy bases in China and North Korea, which is another hot issue in Japanese foreign policy that's debated a lot domestically. Or whether Japan should vastly increase its defense spending to up to 2% of GDP, Kishida so far has proven himself to be more cautious and less susceptible to Abe's influence in these areas. Kishida also appears to be giving no more than lip service to Abe's long term goal of constitutional reform, particularly revising the war renouncing Article nine of Japan's constitution. On the other hand, in other foreign policy areas, we see a lot of continuity. Kishida continues to emphasize the centrality of the U.S. Japan Alliance for Japan's Security and seeks to continue to strengthen that alliance. He is certainly going to not roll back any key Abe policies like recognizing the right to collective self-defense, etc. So there's a lot of continuity, but those areas will probably see continuity regardless of Abe's personal influence. If there was a consensus in Japan on those issues.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:14:33]

You mentioned Taiwan just now kind of in passing. Perhaps in East Asian security politics, or one might even say in global security politics these days, Taiwan, of course, plays a crucial role, not least for Japan. In an interview earlier this year, the foreign affairs minister of Taiwan, Joseph Wu, he warned that the threat from China was, and I quote, very serious and the Taiwan needed to be prepared for possible Chinese military action. Whether it is an all out invasion or a small skirmish. And that, too, was a quote from Taiwan's foreign affairs minister. Other assessments indicate that China's People's Liberation Army could, within a few years, have enough amphibious ships for a so-called lightning invasion carried out in a single wave of landings. And I know that, of course, in Japan there's an ongoing public discussion about what the country should do, how one should respond if China were to attack Taiwan. I know this is, at least for the time being, a counterfactual question: Would Japan seriously considering assisting Taiwan militarily in conjunction with the U.S., Perhaps?

Paul Midford

Well, yes, as you just mentioned, there is a serious debate about it now. But I want to emphasize that so far it is really only a debate and the possibility of that happening if a conflict were, heaven forbid, to break out tomorrow, I think remains rather remote. So in this debate, as I mentioned, Kishida was the first prime minister to openly talk about the importance of Taiwan security for Japan's own security. But it's really former Prime Minister Abe, who's been leading the charge on this debate, essentially saying that Japan would help the U.S. to defend Taiwan. But so far, the opinions are divided. Abe's remarks got a lot of press coverage. But on the other hand, former Foreign and Defense Minister Kono Taro's remarks on this did not get as much attention. But Kono has been emphasizing that Japan would respond to a Chinese attack with economic sanctions on China rather than with a military response. And among the opposition parties, there's even more opposition to the idea of supporting Taiwan militarily. So in short, there's no consensus on how Japan would respond in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. But even if a consensus were to emerge in favor of helping to defend Taiwan militarily, it would take a while for that to translate into war plans and necessary capabilities for Japan to do so. So in short, Japan's direct military assistance to Taiwan in terms of combat and in the context of a military conflict is not a practical option in the short run. However, if there is a conflict, of course, the U.S. will be able to use its bases in Japan to help defend Taiwan, particularly U.S. bases in Okinawa, which are relatively close to Taiwan. And Japan, may also provide rear area non-combat logistical support, support with search and rescue, maybe medical support, etc. There's also a real risk, of course, that Japan could be sucked into a war anyway if China decides to attack U.S. bases in Japan, particularly in Okinawa, that are supporting U.S. military operations against China in Taiwan. So that's a real possibility. Actually, ironically, because Japan is becoming more forward about helping to fight alongside the U.S. in the case of such a regional conflict, it actually may reduce the kind of disincentive that China previously had to avoid attacking Japan or U.S. military bases, because there was previously this idea that as long as Japan was not directly attacked, it would not get involved in a conflict between the U.S. and China. But due to changes under Abe that now appears less likely and therefore there's a greater chance that China might escalate a conflict by launching attacks on U.S. bases in Japan and maybe even Japanese forces themselves.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:18:31]

If we could move from foreign policy to economic policy. Something interesting seems to be happening there. Kishida aims for what he calls new capitalism. And as far as I can make out, this idea of a new capitalism as it is being promoted consists of a virtuous cycle of growth and distribution. And another quote I've come across this context the development of a new society after the COVID 19 pandemic, there's been a new capitalism headquarters set up, which is now, as I understand it, in the process of compiling its visions and concrete plans, which should be ready at some point the spring. Now, for someone like myself sitting in Oslo, growth with distribution, that really sounds a lot like, well, social democracy as we know it from the Scandinavian context. Would this be a sort of a correct reading of Kishida’s idea of new capitalism? And if that is the case, wouldn't that seem to indicate quite a sharp break with obvious so-called Abenomics, which in my understanding had more of a sort of neo liberal slant to it?

Paul Midford

Yes, it would. And your point about the comparison with kind of social democracy in Scandinavia is interesting. As I said, Kishida comes from sort of the left center of the LDP. So there is some commonality and has been in the past on that part of the LDP in terms of wanting to promote full employment and relatively even distribution of wealth. This you can date back to the fifties and sixties. But the main difference with Scandinavia is that the LDP has never been very supportive of the welfare state. It has not believed and has not promoted the welfare state at all. There is a social safety net, but it's relatively thin compared to Scandinavia. Instead, the LDP has tended to embrace more Keynesian economics, including creating public works projects to give the unemployed jobs, even if it means digging a hole to then fill it up again, not literally, but almost. So in that sense, it's different from social democracy as we see it in Scandinavia. But certainly the twin goals of economic growth and a fairer distribution of wealth have been shared widely, even within the LDP. Now, new capitalism has been, as you pointed out, the main headline of Kishida’s domestic policies. And it's also been a way for him to distance himself from Abe, as you also suggested. Effectively, new capitalism is a critique of Abenomics for worsening economic inequality, even while it produced economic growth. Now, Kishida is using this slogan to call for economic redistribution toward blue and white collar working Japanese. Now, initially he broached increasing corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy, but this created a pretty negative reaction from the Japanese stock market, which fell a lot as he became more viable as a prime ministerial candidate. And also some in the LDP, particularly Prime Minister Abe, who I think took some personal offense at his critique of Abenomics, have opposed some aspects of new capitalism. In fact, Abe went so far as to warn that if it pushes that too much, it might sound like socialism and that might spook markets. So since that time, Kishida has pulled back a bit from some of his more ambitious plans, and he's now focusing more narrowly on increasing wages, particularly kind of jawboning companies to increase wages for employees, which actually Abe himself did to some extent. But that seems to be the focus of it - maybe also tax cuts for working class, blue and white collar workers. So how successful he will be in that endeavor remains to be seen. So far this year, it doesn't seem that Japanese companies during the spring, Shinto or wage negotiations with labor unions don't seem to be budging much in terms of increasing wages. And Japan does have a long term problem with stagnating wages. That's one of the major reasons why Japan's economy has not been able to really take off since the 1990s. And it's a comparison with South Korea, where wages have been growing and standards of living have been growing. And in fact, recently South Korea in real terms surpassed Japan in terms of per capita income. So this is a real problem that Kishida's put his finger on. But whether he has the tools to push companies to raise wages, we'll have to see. But nonetheless, his call for this economic redistribution to the middle class and raising wages is certainly very broadly popular.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:23:04]

We're sadly approaching the end of this episode, but there is one topic I'd like to just touch upon as we approach the end and it's a topic I know is important to you, given that it's something you've worked on and written about more recently in your career, namely the question of climate change. I know that you have this growing interest in renewables in Japan. In terms of climate change and the transition to renewables, I mean, Japan matters. It's the eighth largest emitting nation in the world. It is the world's third largest economy. So what what happens in Japan in terms of renewables and climate change matters for all of us basically. Are there any indications of what we can expect from Kishida on this account? Yeah, I've so far referred to Prime Minister Suga as essentially a transitional figure between Abee and Kishida. But this is one area where Suga actually proved to be quite influential, specifically on Japan's environmental and energy policies. In fall 2020 and spring 2021 Suga vastly increased Japan's greenhouse gas reduction targets, matching the EU and promising to achieve zero net emissions by 2050. He also greatly increased Japan's reduction target for greenhouse gases for 2030 from 26%. He raised the target or the ambition up to 46%, which is not as ambitious as the EU, but it's still a big improvement. So much so that industry and the Ministry of Economics, trade and Industry expressed some skepticism about whether this could be achieved. But nonetheless, he pushed forward with that ambitious goal. At the same time, Suga also pledged to increase the 2030 target for the share of renewable energy from 22 to 24% of Japan's electricity production, up to 36 to 38%, while leaving the nuclear power target untouched at around 20 to 22%. Now, behind this change, what we can see is the influence of two other politicians Kono Taro have talked about before, and also Environment Minister Koizumi Shinjiro, both of whom come from neighboring districts to Suga and are close to Suga. And both Koizumi and Kono are potential rivals to Kishida for leadership of the LDP and the Prime Minister's chair come 2024. Now, Kishida is known to be more pro-nuclear and possibly more skeptical of the ambitious greenhouse gas targets that Suga set for 2030. Nonetheless, he left Suga's targets in place. So in short, what we can expect from Kishida domestically is continuity with Prime Minister Suga. But albeit a big change from Prime Minister Abe, but little in terms of more ambitious targets and policies to further reduce greenhouse gases. Gas emissions are further up the targets for renewable energy, but there's a lot Japan has to do between now and 2030 to meet its targets. Also, Japan under Suga set a goal of trying to phase out gasoline cars by 2035. Now, internationally, we can perhaps expect a bit more from Kishida. So when Kishida went to the Glasgow COP26 conference, he promised in a speech that Japan would invest $10 billion over five years to help create a, “an Asia zero emissions community”. So this is money he'll be giving out to other Asian economies to help them reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, Japan still is seen as a bit of a laggard. Kishida received the Fossil of the Day award at Glasgow because Japan refused to promise to phase out all coal burning plants by 2030. Although the new policies put in place by Suga do call for a big reduction. So that's what I think we can expect continuity towards ambitious goals for 2030 and maybe a bit more activism from Kishida in terms of helping other countries in Asia with their greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:27:03]

Paul Midford. Thanks so much for this tour de force analysis of Japan under the new Prime Minister Kishida. Thanks so much for coming, Paul. It's always a pleasure to have you with us.

Paul Midford [00:27:14]

It's always a pleasure to be with you. Thank you for inviting me, I enjoyed our discussion.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:27:19]

My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen and thank you for joining the Nordic Asia Podcast showcasing Nordic collaboration in Studying Asia.

Closing Jingle [00:27:29]

You have been listening to the Nordic Asia podcast