TOKYO – Japan has had no shortage of faceless prime ministers over the decades, a revolving door of leaders forgotten almost as soon as they step down. The most recent to come out, which itself only lasted a year, was blamed for a style of communication that often came across as a cure for insomnia.
Now comes Fumio Kishida, who was chosen as prime minister last month by the ruling Liberal Democrats and led the party to victory on Sunday in a tighter-than-usual parliamentary election.
By anointing Mr. Kishida, 64, last month, the Liberal Democrats ignored both an outspoken maverick who was popular with the public and a far-right nationalist who was said to have been the first female leader. from Japan.
The bet most likely cost the party votes in close races across the country, but retained its simple majority in parliament. Yet in the face of public discontent with economic stagnation and the government’s initial handling of the coronavirus crisis, the Liberal Democrats won a majority but lost seats, some held by prominent party leaders.
The Liberal Democrats are expected to have won at least 253 seats on Monday morning, exceeding the 233 needed for a majority, according to NHK, the public broadcaster. The party has, however, lost 40 since the last lower house elections in 2017, when then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe led the party to a landslide victory.
The main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, also lost seats.
Mr Kishida said the result showed the electorate had gave the Liberal Democrats a “very valuable claim”.
As a somewhat lighter leader than his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, Mr. Kishida is still frequently described as “boring” by the Japanese media and struggles to connect with the public, even his supporters and friends.
“His speech sounds so serious that it doesn’t sound interesting even if he meant something interesting,” said Ikuzo Kubota, 67, president of a property management company in Hiroshima, who knows Mr. Kishida. for over 30 years. “Even now I sometimes think he should learn to say things in an interesting way.”
The rise of former foreign minister Mr Kishida is a powerful reflection of the entrenched power of the Liberal Democrats in Japan. He was selected precisely because of his milquetoast persona, political experts have said, because it allows behind-the-scenes power brokers to project their agenda on him. And the party made its choice confident it could win the election despite its lack of charisma.
Hoping to emerge from the election less weakened than expected, Mr. Kishida crisscrossed the country on chartered flights during the two-week election campaign. During his last campaign stop on Saturday night, in front of a crowded square outside a Tokyo station, Mr. Kishida received some polite applause as he shouted a warm “Good evening”.
His voice was repeatedly broken as he attempted to project enthusiasm into his stump speech, stumbling on his promises to build a new style of economy and protect Japan in the face of growing regional instability. . He concluded with a warning that Japanese democracy would be threatened if the country’s Communist Party won more seats in Parliament.
Mr Kishida’s rhetoric of a ‘new capitalism’ that would reduce income inequality, a platform aimed at a disgruntled public battered by coronavirus-related trade restrictions, has become more vague over the course of the campaign.
He rejected a proposal to increase taxes on capital gains. Instead, he reverted to a familiar economic playbook for the Liberal Democrats, calling for more tax spending for projects backed by big industries such as construction, which generally back the party.
“He’s almost like a figurehead for other party figures to pitch their ideas,” said James Brady, chief analyst in Japan at Teneo, a risk management consultancy. “He is not a strong leader. He is not someone with a lot of ideas.
Like many other Liberal Democrat lawmakers, Mr. Kishida was brought up in a political family. His grandfather and father both served in the House of Representatives, and Mr. Kishida began his political career as his father’s secretary.
Although Mr. Kishida represents a district of Hiroshima and his family is originally from the area, he was raised primarily in Tokyo. He spent three years in New York when his father was posted there during a stint at the Department of Commerce.
He often cites the formative experience of attending a public elementary school in the Elmhurst section of Queens, describing an incident in 1965 when a white classmate refused to hold his hand as instructed by a teacher on a school trip . Mr. Kishida says the moment has planted in him a lifelong commitment to fairness and justice.
Back in Japan, Mr. Kishida was an ardent baseball player – albeit, by his own admission, mediocre. He tried and failed three times to pass the entrance exam to the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious state university.
He eventually enrolled at Waseda, one of Tokyo’s top private universities. In “Kishida Vision,” a dissertation published last year, he wrote that he was more interested in music and mahjong than academics during his undergraduate years.
Mr. Kishida began a career in banking, gaining empathy, he writes, for people and small businesses who struggle to repay their loans.
When his father died of cancer at the age of 65, Mr. Kishida ran for the Hiroshima siege in 1993 and won. He has held various ministerial positions and was Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
He did not leave a great impression on his colleagues. “I have no recollection of him even though I have met him every week at cabinet meetings,” said Yoichi Masuzoe, a former governor of Tokyo who was minister of health when Mr. Kishida was minister in charge of ‘Okinawa and a string of known islands. than the Northern Territories.
Some Foreign Ministry officials have given him the nickname “Chihuahua”, calling him behind his back a “well-behaved dog,” said General Nakatani, a former defense minister who has known Kishida for 30 years.
A lawmaker Mr. Kishida met at university and described as one of his best friends went on to support a rival, Taro Kono, in the recent Liberal Democratic leadership election.
Mr. Kishida does not have the arrogance or arrogance that characterizes other politicians. He “listens to people, is calm and never speaks ill of others,” Nakatani said. “He doesn’t behave in a selfish manner.
He was Foreign Minister when President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima in 2016, and when South Korea and Japan signed an agreement in 2015 to compensate so-called Comfort Women, a term for those who have taken as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during WWII. But Mr. Kishida rarely gets the credit for these accomplishments.
If we remember him, he’s like a heavy drinker who keeps his dignity and leaves the bar before midnight. In his memoirs he wrote that he matched Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, drink for drink. Mr Kishida once hosted a birthday party for his Russian counterpart and gave him a bottle of Suntory Hibiki 21 whiskey, which costs around $ 750.
When Caroline Kennedy was US Ambassador to Tokyo, Mr. Kishida gave her T-shirts, aprons and mugs printed with photos or cartoons of her face.
His attempts to be liked on social networks have sometimes ended in failure or outright taunts.
A post he shared on Twitter and Instagram, showing his wife standing in the kitchen doorway as he sat at the table eating a dinner she had cooked, has been derided. Videos showing his wife, Yuko, 57, and his three sons cheering him on were slightly more popular.
“He’s a bit socially and culturally out of step with the majority of the population,” said Shihoko Goto, senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington.
Its erasure underlies a political pragmatism that allows it to pivot when certain ideas become unpopular or when it must respond to a particularly powerful electorate. More often than not, this constituency comes from within the party, not from the public.
As a Hiroshima politician, Mr. Kishida opposed nuclear weapons and adopted more accommodating positions on foreign policy. But as a candidate for prime minister, he has stepped up his hawkish views on China and defended the restart of nuclear power plants, the vast majority of which have been shut down since the triple Fukushima merger 10 years ago. Supporting nuclear power is a key item on the agenda of the right wing of the Liberal Democratic Party.
Because Mr Kishida won the election of prime minister backed by lawmakers “more focused on satisfying organized interests and big business”, he must now reward them, said Megumi Naoi, associate professor of political science at the ‘University of California at San Diego.
As for his proposals on economic inequalities, Ms Naoi said she could not say how sincere he was initially. “I don’t know how much of that is her belief,” she said, “or just a campaign strategy or a political survival strategy.”
Ben dooley and Hikari Hida contributed reports.