How Fumio Kishida might steer Japan as the next Prime Minister

TOKYO – Mr Fumio Kishida, the man set to become Japan’s 100th Prime Minister, has vowed to appoint a ministerial aide on human rights issues, rattling China.

The 64-year-old also supports beefing up Japan’s coast guard, in a nod to the move by China earlier this year to allow its coast guard to use force against foreign vessels in territory that it claims. Mr Kishida is also in favour of passing a parlimentary resolution to condemn China’s treatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang.

All of these led Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian to say that Japan should “quit making an issue out of China”.

Mr Kishida’s support for a more forceful defence posture – he also favours raising the defence budget above the psychological cap at 1 per cent of gross domestic product – comes as he toughens up his posture despite heading one of the most dovish factions in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

But discussions on nuclear weapons sit uneasily with him, as a nine-term elected lawmaker from his ancestral Hiroshima, which was the first city in the world to suffer the ravages of an atomic bomb.

Mr Kishida has said that it was not necessary for Japan to acquire nuclear submarines, unlike two other rival candidates in the race to be LDP president which he eventually won. Instead, the consensus-building politician prefers forging even closer security links with like-minded partners, including in the Quad grouping which includes the United States, Australia and India.

He added on Wednesday (Sept 29) that he would continue to place the realisation of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, first pitched by former prime minister Shinzo Abe, as a priority.

But while it looks to be status quo for Japan on the defence and foreign policy front, Mr Kishida might introduce more economic changes.

While praising Mr Abe’s signature “Abenomics” policy for catalysing economic growth, he has also blamed it for fuelling a rich-poor divide, as the fruits are unevenly distributed between the haves and have-nots. Growing company profits has not translated into rising employee wages, while big cities are leaving depopulating rural regions in the dust.

In response, Mr Kishida has pledged a stimulus package worth at least 30 trillion yen (S$365 billion) to realise what he brands as a “new form of Japanese capitalism” that prioritises fairer wealth distribution.

He stressed that raising disposable incomes was key to boost flagging national consumption that is a key driver of economic growth.

“We can’t achieve strong growth if wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small group of people,” he said, citing a need to create a “virtuous cycle” of growth and wealth distribution and promising grants in housing and education aid to address disparity.

Mr Kishida is also set to continue policies by outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, including in the 2050 carbon-neutral climate goals and in digital transformation.

He will also largely build on the work done by Mr Suga in Covid-19 countermeasures, including an emphasis on ramping up vaccinations, and will set up a health crisis management agency as part of bureaucratic reforms to ensure faster pandemic response.

Japan appears to be out of the woods as far as Covid-19 is concerned, with 1,732 cases recorded on Tuesday out of 80,004 tests. There were another 1,986 cases on Wednesday, though testing data was not yet available as of press time.

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Suntory Holdings chief executive officer Takeshi Niinami urged Mr Kishida to “conduct a thorough assessment of pandemic-related measures taken so far, and urgently implement the necessary legislation and bureaucratic reform”.

Dr Toru Yoshida of Doshisha University in Kyoto told The Straits Times that Mr Kishida has a more centrist ideological position that may blunt the opposition in a general election due by November.

This is given his focus on issues such as social inequality and household incomes – long bread-and-butter causes taken up by the opposition – while also recognising the need for a more hawkish national security posture amid geopolitical challenges.

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