A month after becoming Japan’s 100th prime minister, Fumio Kishida has another reason to celebrate.
Defying expectations, his governing coalition has secured a comfortable preponderance of seats in the Lower House of parliament, with his Liberal Democratic Party now enjoying an absolute majority and control over committees. The question now is how Kishida will use this impressive result, and what his leadership will mean for Japan.
Despite my long involvement with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government as an economic adviser, I do not recall having any personal conversation with Kishida. But we have come across each other in government meetings and he always greeted me with a genuine smile and gesture. This points to a social and political aptitude that will serve him well as prime minister.
More concretely, Kishida leads Kochikai, an LDP policy group known for its relatively dovish foreign-policy stance and strong focus on the economy. Kochikai was created in 1957 by Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda. Ikeda’s predecessor, Nobusuke Kishi (Abe’s maternal grandfather), adopted the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan — at the time a controversial move that sent student protesters pouring into the streets.
In hindsight, it seems clear that the treaty helped enable Japan’s subsequent economic boom by reducing the defense-spending burden. But it was Ikeda’s policies that made the biggest difference. At the beginning of his tenure, he pledged that they would double Japan’s GDP within 10 years. The promise was met with plenty of skepticism, but Ikeda made good on it — two years early.
Kishida is likely to take a similar approach, characterized by a focus on the economy and moderation in foreign policy. His record as Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister — a position he occupied under Abe from 2012 to 2017 — lends weight to this scenario.
Consider the highly contentious dispute over the “comfort women” South Korea accuses Japan of forcing into sexual slavery during World War II. Kishida reached a settlement with the South Korean government, which included the creation of a ¥1 billion (nearly $9 million) fund for survivors. South Korea’s government ultimately did not honor the agreement, owing to decisions taken by South Korean courts, but that cannot be blamed on Kishida.
Kishida’s efforts to heal the wounds of WWII went further. He invited U.S. President Barack Obama to his own hometown, Hiroshima, where the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb in 1945, and brought Abe to Pearl Harbor, where Japan carried out the attack that drew the U.S. into the war. Many take these visits for granted, but in fact, they showed significant wisdom and considerable grace.
Kishida also showed sincerity and composure in managing Japan’s challenging relationships with China and Russia. So impressive is Kishida’s record as foreign minister that, in my view, he could well have played a central role in bringing rivals together and perhaps catalyzing progress on some of the world’s key disputes, had he remained in the post for longer.
But questions about Kishida’s agenda linger in Japan. For starters, his 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 a stronger gross domestic product, corporate earnings, and employment, it failed to spur the broad-based growth Japan needs.
In Kishida’s view, the goal now must be to spur a “virtuous economic cycle” by “raising the incomes of not just a certain segment, but a broader range of people to trigger consumption.” This objective — which hearkens back to Ikeda’s motto, “to build a nation is to build people” — certainly has merit. But it is far easier said than done, and Kishida has yet to articulate how he plans to deliver.
My second major concern about Kishida arises from his inaugural address to parliament, in which he quoted a well-known proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The idea probably appealed to many listeners; Japanese, after all, are products of an education system that stifles individualism and rewards conformity.
But more individualism — and the economic innovation and dynamism it sustains — is exactly what Japan needs. Sometimes, people do need to “go alone”; that is what it means to be a trailblazer. And, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, time is of the essence. Unless Japan recognizes this — as China has — its economy will suffer.
Kishida also declared in his speech that he believes in “the latent power and vitality of the Japanese people.” To tap that power and vitality, however, his government will have to embrace — and encourage — individual initiative.
To be as constructive as prime minister as he was as foreign minister, Kishida will need to overcome bureaucratic resistance, like the meaningless claim for the short-term, primary budget balance during an emergency like COVID-19. Most importantly, he should articulate his policy objectives and his strategy for achieving them. Unless he does, he is unlikely to remain in power for long.
Koichi Hamada, professor emeritus at Yale University, was a special adviser to former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. © Project Syndicate, 2021.
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