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A Big Tent Party: Where Do Candidates for Japan’s Next Prime Minister Stand on Issues?

The winner in the election for Liberal Democratic Party will also lead the nation. Here’s how they would continue or change Japan.

Edo Naito

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As the candidates to replace Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga as the next president of the Liberal Democratic Party and the next PM of Japan have been settled, it strikes me once again that the LDP truly remains a “big tent party.” By that, I mean it is a party that can comfortably accommodate candidates whose policies can be characterized in Japan as “liberal” to “conservative.” 

I say “in Japan” as these tags favored by media and academics to dummy down the discussion do not really translate across national borders. What is conservative in Japan might well be seen as liberal in the United States or centrist in Germany. 

The next LDP presidential election provides an almost perfect example of what “big tent” really means. 

The Candidates

The three candidates, with ages and gender noted, are Fumio Kishida (M, 64), Taro Kono (M, 58), and Sanae Takaichi (F, 60).  A fourth candidate, Seiko Noda (F, 61), entered the race just before the deadline. This article has been updated to include her information but not her policy positions, which were not yet clarified.

Each one has extensive political and government experience. Kono and Takashi have each been elected eight times, and Kishida nine times, to the House of Representatives, the so-called “Lower House” of the National Diet, but the more powerful of the two in the Japanese parliamentary system. The “Upper House” is known as the House of Councillors. 

LDP Member (Lower House) Fumio Kishida

Their Pedigree

Kishida, whose father and grandfather served in the Lower House, heads the 5th largest LDP faction, which he took over from Makoto Koga. 

Kono is a member of the 2nd largest faction, headed by Vice Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso. (The faction used to be led by the candidate’s father, Yohei Kono, who rose to the LDP presidency, and his grandfather, who served as deputy prime minister). 

Takaichi currently belongs to no faction. In the past she had been a member of the Mori faction (led by Yoshiro Mori) and has served in multiple Cabinets of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. She has been a supporter of Abe for two decades.

LDP Member (Lower House) Sanae Takaichi

Their Leadership Experience

Each has had experience at the Cabinet ministerial level in managing large government ministries and their respective bureaucracies. At the same time, some of the most senior roles for each candidate were served within the LDP party organization. 

Kono served as defense minister and foreign minister before taking on the role of regulatory reform/vaccine czar in the current administration. Within the LDP itself, he headed the Administrative Reform Committee.

Kishida was foreign minister of Japan, and also served as minister for consumer affairs and for Okinawa. Inside the party, Kishida has headed the LDP Policy Research Council and Diet Affairs Committee.

Takaichi has been minister for internal affairs and communications, and minister for science and technology, as well as for Okinawa. Within the party, she has headed the LDP’s Policy Research Council.

In comparing the three, one can make the case that Kono has the deepest experience in Cabinet roles but lightest for LDP party roles. Takaichi has some Cabinet experience but has the deepest experience in LDP party roles. Kishida’s experience is fairly balanced between Cabinet and party. 

LDP Member (Lower House) Taro Kono

Policy Differences

The most interesting comparison comes in their policies. The chart below shows the respective positions of the three candidates who, before the filing deadline, had made their positions well-known on major policy issues of special interest inside Japan. 

Constitutional Reform

The liberal and conservative tags again are relevant, but only in the context of Japan, as some of the hot areas that are tagged by media as liberal or conservative in Japan — such as the amendment of Article 9 of the Constitution, which all three support in some way, visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, or imperial succession — do not exist elsewhere. 

Economic and Social Issues

Likewise, major issues that lead to liberal or conservative tags in many countries — such as the fairness of graduated income and estate taxation, abortion, voting rights, and universal access to healthcare — are not major political issues in Japan because they are essentially settled. 

Kishida is more liberal on economic issues, using terms such as “income redistribution” in his statement of policy goals. In contrast, both Kono and Takaichi would focus on greater support for child-rearing families and small businesses, while extending the timeline to balance the budget. 

National Security

National security and defense issues also bring the three candidates clearly into the LDP fold. They support the U.S.-Japan Security Agreement and desire to amend the Status of Forces Agreement with the United States. They also support development of missile capability to prevent attacks from enemy bases and see Taiwan security as linked to Japan’s national security. All three view the People’s Republic of China under the Chinese Communist Party as the largest security threat. 

Takaichi has proposed raising Japan’s defense budget to 2% of GDP to mirror what the goal is in Europe. Among the three, the media tag Takaichi as “hawkish,” a tag media seems to frequently apply to LDP female leaders. 

Energy

The issue of energy is a significant one for resource-poor Japan. On this, Kono is generally opposed to nuclear energy as a permanent part of Japan’s future energy plan, but he has said he would not shut down plants deemed safe. Both Kishida and Takaichi accept nuclear energy as an important core part of the basic energy plan for Japan. 

Gender

Takaichi is more traditional on gender-based social issues in that she opposes differences in family name upon marriage and changes to the current rules for imperial succession with respect to female or matrilineal emperors. 

In contrast, Kono supports changes to both the rules applicable to Japan’s family registry system to allow different family names of a married couple and in the opening of imperial succession to female members of the imperial family. 

Kishida is split. He supports different family names among married couples, but wants to retain the tradition of male lineage for imperial succession. 

Government and Party Reform

Each of the candidates sees a need to reform the government ministries. Kono has specifically suggested that Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare be split into two ministries. Kishida has proposed a Health Crisis Agency, and Takaichi suggested two new ministries to cover cybersecurity and information and communications. 

In terms of LDP party politics, Kono is known for being a reformer, while Kishida and Takaichi are seen as supporters of party rules and structure. Some of the older guard in the LDP therefore view Kono with a degree of suspicion.

Seiko Noda announces her candidacy for the LDP presidency on September 17, 2021.

Latecomer Seiko Noda Enters the Race

Seiko Noda entered at the last-minute after a delay caused by 3 failed tries to gain 20 backers. Here is a summary of her background and major policies.

She is 61 years old and has been elected 9 times to the Lower House, although she is unaffiliated with a faction. Her grandfather, Uichi Nodai, whose last name she took, was a Lower House member and a Cabinet Minister.

Seiko Noda has held cabinet minister roles at the Ministry of Communications, Science & Technology, and Consumer Affairs agency. In terms of LDP party roles, she is currently Deputy Secretary-General under Toshiro Nikai, and has chaired the General Council. Her primary policy interests have been with Japan’s declining population, gender equality, support for families and people with disabilities. She has rarely spoken out on other issues. While generally supporting the LDP’s primary positions on national security and foreign affairs, she will be seen as the most progressive among the candidates on social issues, adding to the diversity of the “big tent” LDP.

What About the Opposition Parties?

There are also opposition parties that do not participate in the election of the LDP leadership, but nevertheless are vying for public attention ahead of the upcoming Lower House elections. 

Four of the opposition parties in the National Diet have reached an agreement on a “joint policy pledge” on specific highlighted major policies where they were able to reach some level of agreement. The four parties are the Social Democratic Party, Japan Communist Party, Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, and Reiwa Shinsengumi. 

Some members of opposition parties have criticized the pledge as having far-left talking points and being too accommodating to the Japan Communist Party. 

The opposition parties will diverge from each other in a number of other areas, and even in many of the details of the four policies noted. This high-level statement is more about gaining media attention than an indicator of how such a coalition might govern, were they ever to win an election. 

Two other larger opposition parties, the Democratic Party For the People and Japan Innovation Party (also known as Nippon Ishin no Kai), did not join the pledge due to the presence of the Japan Communist Party.  

Summary

Takaichi presents herself as the most traditional, especially on gender issues but less so in terms of funding major government programs. 

Kishida presents himself as the most liberal on economic issues, but traditional in party management and imperial succession. 

Kono can be viewed as liberal or conservative, depending upon the issue. He is seen as the most likely to drive major reforms within the LDP and the government. 

Noda will be seen as the most progressive among the candidates on social issues, the area where she has the deepest experience.

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Author: Edo Naito

Edo Naito is a retired international business attorney. He has held senior executive positions, leading major business units in Japan, the Indo-Pacific region, and globally at several U.S. and Japanese multinational companies. He naturalized as Japanese in 2015 after living and working in Japan for over 40 years.