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Fumio Kishida | The man on the throne

From economic woes to China, a host of challenges are awaiting the new leader

October 02, 2021 10:31 pm | Updated October 08, 2021 11:37 am IST

As Japan stands on the cusp of a significant change in political leadership, the man of the hour is former Foreign Minister and newly elected leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Fumio Kishida (64). As Japan’s 100th Prime Minister, Mr. Kishida will be stepping into the shoes of his predecessor Yoshihide Suga, after the latter’s approval ratings plunged precipitously in the wake of Japan’s tepid coronavirus pandemic response, including on the economic front. Mr. Kishida is expected to take charge in his new capacity after the Diet, the Japanese Parliament, convenes in October.

When he does so, he will find the task ahead of him to be near gargantuan. He will inherit responsibility for managing the world’s third-largest economy. Add to this the pre-existing structural problems of an ageing population, soaring public debt, and extreme vulnerability to climatic shocks and natural disasters, and it is evident that his plate is full.

Reworking the blueprint

At the heart of this challenge is the imperative for Mr. Kishida’s party, the LDP, to back a transformative fiscal programme that can boost spending through stimulus packages. Industries reeling from the impact of nearly six months of lockdown restrictions could certainly use a shot in the arm of considerable magnitude.

Being a moderate and liberal voice within a party known for conservatism and Japanese nationalism at a broad level, Mr. Kishida is ideally positioned to shepherd such reforms through the Diet. He has already indicated his inclination to increase public expenditure to give the Japanese economy a leg-up as it limps back to commercial normalcy; yet he has hinted that he will avoid immediate tax hikes even if the deficit expands.

This puts his approach in sharp contrast to a Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, whose ‘Abenomics’ was focused on delivering economic growth led by rising corporate bottom lines. In this regard, making a name for himself through a distinct style of political leadership will be important for Mr. Kishida, primarily because he will likely have to contend with a general election at the latest by November 28 under the Japanese Constitution, following the end of the term of the lower house of Parliament on October 21.

In facing the hurdles ahead in his new role, the Kishida family’s long involvement in politics may be an asset. Both Mr. Kishida’s father as well as grandfather were members of Japan’s powerful lower house, the House of Representatives. When, in 1993, the mantle passed to Mr. Kishida from his father, who held the parliamentary seat from Hiroshima, he succeeded in winning that constituency. This would mark the early days of a strong career in mainstream Japanese politics, which culminated in Mr. Kishida serving as the longest standing Foreign Minister in the country since World War II.

In this capacity, he was also likely drawing on his experience living in the U.S. as a child, and his exposure to other cultures during that time. In the early 1960s, his father, who was at the time a trade official in the Japanese government, secured a role in New York, leading to the young Mr. Kishida, then six years old, relocating there with his family and studying at a public school in Elmhurst, Queens.

Later, he wrote that despite occasionally brushing up against subtle racism in certain contexts, as a student he mingled with a diversity of ethnic people, including white, Indian, Native American, and Korean, and although “the U.S. was an enemy of Japan during the war and the nation that dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima… I was young, and to me, the U.S. was nothing but a country that was generous-hearted and filled with diversity.”

In China’s backyard

The obvious focal point in Japanese foreign policy going forward will be Japan-China relations. During his tenure as Foreign Minister, Mr. Kishida made it very clear that Tokyo would always foster warm relations with the U.S., India, Australia, and other democratic Asian powers, both strategically and economically. Yet with Beijing pursing aggressive territorial policies relating to Taiwan and the South China Sea, and North Korea once again veering towards testing ballistic missiles, Mr. Kishida will have to work assiduously and creatively to successfully walk the tightrope across regional political rivalries.

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