Fumio Kishida: The prudent politician who wants to change Japan

The Japanese prime minister – who hosted this year’s G-7 summit in Hiroshima – came to power as a moderate reformer. But now, after less than two years in power, he’s overseeing significant shifts in his country’s economy, foreign policy and national defense

Fumio Kishida
Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during an interview with foreign media on April 20 in Tokyo.Eugene Hoshiko (AP)

Fumio Kishida — Japan’s prime minister since October 2021 and host of the G-7 summit in Hiroshima — came to power with a record as a moderate reformer and effective consensus builder. His rise responded to what has long been the most powerful political sentiment in Japan since the end of World War II: the desire for stability.

Kishida is a member of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled Japan almost without pause since its founding in 1955. Affable, discreet and endowed with good government experience — having previously served as a minister in the portfolios of defense and foreign affairs — he has been described as “Mr. Status Quo.” The 2021 general election — held just a few weeks after he took office, when he was elected leader of his incumbent party through Japan’s parliamentary system — saw him achieve a solid victory and gain legitimacy among the public.

However, despite his nickname, in a world facing brutal upheaval, Kishida, 65, has shifted drastically. He is now determinedly pushing political change in Japan’s national defense, economy and international relations. The invasion of Ukraine, the inflationary flare-up post-Covid (although this has affected Japan less than other countries) and a deterioration of relations with China are all factors that have contributed to Kishida’s pivot.

The Japanese prime minister is now promoting a new policy of military expansion — a change of direction in a country that has been pacifist since 1945. This past December, Kishida announced an increase of Japan’s military spending from 1% to 2% of GDP, over the next five years.

Despite this, Kishida vigorously reaffirms his administration’s attachment to the pacifist values that have marked his country’s identity since 1945. Kishida — who has family origins in Hiroshima, where his constituency is located — organized the 2023 G-7 summit in the symbolic city to underscore the importance of rejecting war and weapons of mass destruction. Members of his family perished in the U.S. atomic bomb attack. But despite his reiterated adherence to pacifist values, the new defense strategy he has implemented for Japan still involves a profound shift from the past.

In the realm of foreign policy, Kishida has led a clear political alignment with the United States and the EU, supporting sanctions against Russia. He has explicitly pronounced that Ukraine can easily be East Asia tomorrow, referring to the risk of an attack from Beijing against Taiwan. Until now, no sitting Japanese prime minister has directly linked a possible Chinese invasion of the island to the security of his country, where large U.S. forces remain deployed. Kishida has ties to Taiwan through his family history: an ancestor of his settled there during the time of Japanese rule, opening a kimono shop.

In Hiroshima, Kishida tried to foster a connection between the G-7 and other crucial partners in the Indo-Pacific region. Some of these nations are clearly aligned with the group — such as Australia and South Korea — while others are non-aligned, such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Kishida represents a moderate PLD current, far from the revisionist nationalism advocated by Shinzo Abe, the charismatic former prime minister who was assassinated in 2022, after he had already left power. But, paradoxically, the turn of international events has led the new prime minister to promote a powerful reinforcement of Japan’s national defense that was undoubtedly one of Abe’s ideals.

Kishida has tried to distance himself from Abe, and not only with regards to the subject of nationalism. He has tried to pursue his own course after the years of Abe’s heterodox economic policy — known as “Abenomics” — which was dominated by monetary incentives for businesses and difficult structural reforms. Kishida wants to reduce economic inequality with a series of measures he has labelled as “New Capitalism.” This also fits with his advocacy of a stronger social safety net for Japan, something widespread in advanced democracies.

In October 2022, his administration presented a package worth about $200 billion, intended to mitigate the effects of rising prices on Japanese citizens, especially in the energy sector. This spending package followed a previous round of economic stimulus launched in November 2021, which was valued at $380 billion. All in all, this new spending represents about 13% of Japan’s GDP.

In terms of political style, Kishida tends to avoid the personalism that was typical of Abe, which was key to the former ruler’s close relationships with other global leaders.

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