What will Fumio Kishida do? by Koichi Hamada

To be as constructive as prime minister as he has been as foreign minister, Japan’s new leader will need to overcome bureaucratic resistance and clearly articulate his political goals and strategy to achieve them. Unless he does, he is unlikely to stay in power for long.

TOKYO – A month after becoming the 100th Prime Minister of Japan, Fumio Kishida has yet another reason to celebrate. Defying expectations, his ruling coalition secured a comfortable preponderance of seats in the lower house of parliament (the Diet), with his Liberal Democratic Party now enjoying an absolute majority and control over parliamentary committees. The question now is how Kishida will use this impressive result and what his leadership will mean for Japan.

Despite my long involvement in the government of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as an economic adviser, I do not recall having had a personal conversation with Kishida. But we passed each other at government meetings and he always greeted me with a sincere smile and gesture. This indicates a social and political aptitude that will serve him well as Prime Minister.

More concretely, Kishida heads Kochikai, a political group in the PLD known for its relatively accommodating foreign policy stance and its strong focus on the economy. Kochikai was established in 1957 by Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda. Ikeda’s predecessor Nobusuke Kishi (Abe’s maternal grandfather) adopted the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Cooperation and Mutual Security – at the time a controversial move that sent protesters students flock to the streets.

Looking back, it seems clear that the treaty contributed to Japan’s subsequent economic boom by reducing the burden of defense spending. But it was Ikeda’s policies that made the biggest difference. At the start of his term, he pledged to double Japan’s GDP within ten years. The promise was met with great skepticism, but Ikeda kept it – two years earlier.

Kishida is likely to take a similar approach, characterized by a focus on economics and moderation in foreign policy. His record as Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister – a post he held under Abe from 2012 to 2017 – lends weight to that scenario.

Consider the highly controversial “comfort women” dispute, South Korea accuses Japan of being forced into sexual slavery during World War II. Kishida struck a deal with the South Korean government, which included establishing a 1 billion yen (nearly $ 9 million) fund for survivors. The South Korean government ultimately did not honor the deal, due to rulings by South Korean courts, but that cannot be blamed on Kishida.

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Kishida’s efforts to heal the wounds of WWII went further. He invited US President Barack Obama to his own hometown, Hiroshima, where the United States dropped an atomic bomb in 1945, and brought Abe to Pearl Harbor, where Japan carried out the attack that resulted in the States -United in the war. Many take these visits for granted, but in fact they have shown great wisdom and grace.

Kishida has also shown sincerity and composure in handling Japan’s difficult relations with China and Russia. Kishida’s record as Foreign Minister is so impressive that, in my opinion, he could very well have played a central role in bringing his rivals together and perhaps catalyzing progress on some of the major global disputes, s’ he had stayed in post longer.

But questions about Kishida’s agenda persist in Japan. To begin with, its economic policy plans remain difficult to discern. He recently pledged to move away from Abenomics, arguing that while it “clearly delivered results” in terms of boosting GDP, business profits and jobs, it failed to boost the large-scale growth that Japan needs.

In Kishida’s view, the goal should now be to stimulate a “virtuous business cycle” by “increasing incomes not only of a certain segment, but of a wider range of people to trigger consumption”. This goal – which goes back to Ikeda’s motto, “to build a nation is to build people” – certainly has merit. But it’s a lot easier said than done, and Kishida has yet to explain how he plans to deliver.

My second major concern about Kishida stems from his inaugural address to the Diet, in which he quotes a well-known proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone.” If you want to go far, go together. The idea probably won over many listeners; The Japanese, after all, are the products of an educational system that stifles individualism and rewards conformism.

But more individualism – and the economic innovation and dynamism it sustains – is exactly what Japan needs. Sometimes people need to “go alone”; that’s what it means to be a pioneer. And, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, time is running out. Unless Japan recognizes it – as China has – its economy will suffer.

Kishida also said in his speech that he believed in “the latent power and vitality of the Japanese people”. To harness this power and vitality, however, his government will need to embrace – and encourage – individual initiative.

To be as constructive as prime minister as he was as foreign minister, Kishida will have to overcome bureaucratic resistance, such as the senseless demand for a short-term primary budget balance during an emergency like COVID-19 . More importantly, it must articulate its political goals and its strategy to achieve them. Unless he does, he is unlikely to stay in power for long.

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