Bookmark is a JAPAN Forward feature that gives you long reads for the weekend. Each edition introduces one overarching thought that branches off to a wide variety of themes. Our hope is for readers to find new depths and perspectives to explore and enjoy.
On September 8, the three candidates aspiring to take the place of Shinzo Abe as president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and thereby lead Japan, officially declared their candidacy.
All three are members of the LDP serving in the lower house of the National Diet (parliament). Moreover, all three have experience as ministers in various departments of the national government.
They are Yoshihide Suga, Shigeru Ishiba, and Fumio Kishida.
The three addressed an unusually small crowd when announcing their candidacy and discussing their policy views. The press conference was nonetheless widely followed online, with more than 30,000 views on the video uploaded to the LDP YouTube channel as of this posting.
Why LDP Leadership Election Now?
Under normal circumstances, the LDP leader is elected in a system whereby half of the votes come from LDP members of the National Diet who have one vote each, and half come from local LDP members through proportional representation from the prefectures and regions throughout Japan.
But the prime minister’s resignation in a year of pandemic and other urgent problems is not normal.
Therefore, the emergency procedures for selecting the party leader will be used to speed the decision process. Under these procedures, three votes are allocated to each of the 47 prefectures. These local votes combine with the votes of the 394 LDP members of the National Diet. All together, there are 535 votes up for grabs.
Both among the National Diet and local LDP members, Mr. Suga seems to be emerging as the clear favorite. Among the members of the National Diet, Mr. Suga secured the public support of most members of five of the seven factions in the LDPーand the group which isn’t affiliated to any factionーin effect, securing his position as the next prime minister of Japan.
Nevertheless, there is a last minute scramble to narrow down the local votes, as well as a possibility of a national election being called within a year. For both reasons, September 10 saw all three candidates appealing to local LDP members in their own prefectures and elsewhere, and in particular seeking support in prefectures affected by the Great Northeast Japan Earthquake in 2011.
JAPAN Forward looks at some of the core ideas and policy proposals each candidate has expressed in public, and what they’ve said about why they think they should lead Japan. We look at their shared and divergent views below, taking the candidates in the order in which they made their presentations on September 8.
Shigeru Ishiba Proposes ‘Disaster Prevention Ministry’
Shigeru Ishiba used his time on September 8 to present an appeal for a change of spirit in the LDP, saying:
The LDP needs to have courage, and needs to be the party that speaks the truth to the people. It needs to be a party which collaborates with society, manages the Diet fairly, and carries out the functions of government with humility.
Mr. Ishiba proposed the introduction of a new “Disaster Prevention Ministry”, a big idea he has previously campaigned on, following the heavy damage in the typhoon season, in his bid for LDP president in 2018.
Mr. Ishiba defined his proposal in his opening speech on September 8 as “Something essential for Japan” in overcoming natural disasters and other calamities that cannot be prevented. (The proposal when original proposed in 2018 was met with opposition from Mr. Suga, who described it as “building upon an already existing roof.”)
On the economy, Mr. Ishiba expressed his vision that the economic center of the country should be moved away from Tokyo, towards a “great reset”. This is similar to a concept pushed forward by the Abe administration, but it has gained particular momentum in the age of COVID-19.
Mr. Ishiba argued that this could help improve low income earners and employment figures, saying: “We can’t improve the numbers of our GDP if we don’t maximize the potential of the local areas.” He went on to add, “We shouldn’t increase the burden on Tokyo as the center of politics, the economy, and finance any further.”
Regarding the management of COVID-19, Mr. Ishiba argued that “It is necessary to debate the introduction of measures to invest in strengthening and extending the support of medical facilities,” regardless of the current state of pressureーor lack of pressure－on these institutions.
On the same subject, he called for revising the Act for Special Measures on Influenza to improve the government’s ability to respond to epidemics.
Earlier, Mr. Ishiba had remarked on his views of foreign affairs in an August 26 interview with artist Mimei Sakamoto and JAPAN Forward, stating his will to “nip in the bud” the aggressive policy of China regarding the Senkaku Islands.
He added in the interview that he would like to expand Japan’s knowledge of countries in the Indo Pacific, while continuing to work with the U.S, as follows:
The Japan-U.S. Security and Status of Forces Agreement needs to be revised in line with the current times. The aim is for a highly sustainable, well-balanced treaty. At the same time, we need to aim at creating a multilateral defense system in the Asia-Pacific region.
Mr. Ishiba’s views on the issue of constitutional reform diverged from those of the other two candidates.
Mr. Ishiba presented his position as one that supports reverting to the 2012 version forwarded to the Diet by members of the LDP (including himself), which was in the opposition at the time. He has taken the view that revisions to the Constitution should include provisions that make politics more transparent, including mentioning political parties and formalizing processes such as extraordinary National Diet sessions.
On the other hand, he does not support the full four point constitutional revision proposed by the LDP in 2018. In fact, Mr. Ishiba was opposed to some points in the LDP’s 2018 draft that would add specific mention of the Self Defense Force in the Constitution, commenting:
The Self-Defense Forces are the strongest organization in the country. Strict control by judiciary, legislation and administration is required.
The subject of education and women’s participation in the workplace generated some common ground among the three candidates. On this issue, Mr. Ishiba proposed that the government should shoulder the financial burden of fertility treatment for women.
In addition, regarding the burden of chores carried out by women at home, he argued:
In Japan, the income of single mothers and the participation of men in home chores is the lowest among developed countries, if we don’t change this, nothing else will…I plan to account for the necessary budget and policies to address the list of needs of women.
Yoshihide Suga Plans ‘National Digital Agency’
Mr. Suga has been the chief cabinet secretary since Prime Minister Abe’s second term began in 2012, and is seen by many as Mr. Abe’s right hand man.
Mr. Suga himself reiterated his wish to continue the Abe legacy, saying:
Prime Minister Abe is retiring in the middle of the term. In order to prevent a political void during a national crisis, there is no time to spare. I want to firmly carry out the initiatives inherited from Prime Minister Abe and move forward.
Mr. Suga proposed creating a National Digital Agency which could help the government implement further digitalization throughout the government and the country. Explaining, he pointed out:
The vertical division (of each ministry and agency) is a major obstacle to the digitization of government, and needs to be systematically promoted.
In a separate press conference on September 10, Mr. Suga pointed out the need for the new digital agency, using as an example the confusion and delays in online applications for the ¥100,000 JPY ($942 USD) government stimulus handouts for Japanese residents in the wake of COVID-19. His proposal would further improve national and regional digitization centering around the recently implemented ‘My Number Card,’ which is the equivalent of a Social Security card used by some other countries.
On the economy, Mr. Suga stayed focused on Abenomics, which he has said should be expanded, and pledged to raise the national minimum wage to help revitalize all regions of Japan.
In a separate economic initiative he emphasized the goal of encouraging inbound tourism as an economic pillar in the future. He connected this initiative with his policy views on COVID-19, saying that policies such as the “Go To Campaign” to push domestic tourism should also be encouraged.
Mr. Suga focused a large portion of his September 8 opening speech on the future of COVID-19 policy. The important thing, he said, was “to avoid at all cost an explosive spread of infection like the ones seen in Europe and the U.S., and protect the lives of the Japanese people.”
To that end, Mr. Suga also stressed the aim of securing a vaccine to be made available for all the people of Japan by the first half of 2021. He advocated expanding PCR testing and increasing the capacity of medical facilities, while pledging his strong support for a balancing of health and safety with economic activity.
On foreign affairs, Suga largely supported a continuation of Mr. Abe’s policies, including resolution of the abduction issue with North Korea. He put emphasis on the U.S. Japan relationship, while also advocating building closer ties in Asia:
I plan to continue working on the functioning U.S.-Japan relationship while protecting our national interest. Starting with China, we need to build stable relations with neighboring countries.
Mr. Suga supports the LDP’s four points of constitutional reform proposed in 2018, which include the specific mention of Japan’s Self Defense Force in the Constitution. On this he commented:
Ever since the LDP party was formed [constitutional reform] has been one of the Party aims. So of course, the Constitution should be amended. The LDP has already presented four proposed amendments, and each party has presented its ideas at the Constitutional Review Board of the Diet… If I become the leader, I will take on the challenge of advancing the review committee.
He also expressed views on the issues related to women’s participation in the workplace. Mr. Suga said he agreed to the idea of supporting fertility treatments, but he also weighed in on the continuing problem of waiting lists for children to get into nursery schools, and the idea of specific guidelines for what companies:
The highest priority is to create an environment where women can play an active role in the economy and have children with peace of mind. It is necessary for each company to set numerical targets for hiring and promoting women. Along with putting an end to the problem of waiting lists children to enter nursery schools, we would like to distribute public medical insurance for infertility treatment in order to widely support households who wish to have a baby.
Fumio Kishida Pushes for ‘Big Data Ministry’
Mr. Kishida expressed the wish to build on the achievements of the Abe administration and set out a new vision for Japan:
We must build on the splendid results left by Prime Minister Abe, and think of the next era. We must listen to the voices of the many people, and turn it into political energy. With the idea of “the power of listening,” we must face a new future.
Mr. Kishida argued for the need to formalize regulations regarding big data, and to that end he proposed establishing a Big Data Ministry. The aim would be to facilitate data collection, protection and usability, including economic data, patient related information and COVID-19 policymaking.
In addition, Mr. Kishida, in a similar bid to Mr. Suga’s, pointed to the lack of digitalization at the government level as an obstacle for the progress benefitting society as a whole. On September 7, he proposed the introduction of a Digital Transformation Promotion Committee, saying: “Due to the lack of data sharing between the different ministries and agencies, digitalization of society as a whole is not progressing.” The committee, as he described it, would support digitalization of the government, and then help reach out to different levels of society.
On the economy, while acknowledging the achievements of Abenomics, Mr. Kishida distinguished his message by focusing on income redistribution.
A gap in the fight against COVID-19 is arising, and we need to face this head on. We need to think about how to redistribute wealth. And with regards to the middle class, there is a debate on whether education, or housing support is more effective. We will consider raising the minimum wage. I would like to devote myself to this effort if elected.
Mr. Kishida also stressed the need to revise the Act on Special Measures for Pandemic Influenza, specifically with regard to the COVID-19 policy. He added that he saw a need to “stabilize the management of medical institutions, which is connected to the early development of a vaccine and medical treatments.”
In matters of foreign affairs, Mr. Kishida focused on his lengthy experience as former foreign minister (2012-2017). He advocated further collaboration with the U.S., Europe, India, and in general “countries which have the same set of values, in order to tackle issues such as climate change and energy.”
Mr. Kishida did not mention the topic of constitutional reform in his opening speech. However, in follow-up comments he expressed a willingness to to revise the Constitution, using the LDP’s (2018) proposed four points for revision as a “starting point for continuing the discussion.”
His comments also took a position close to Mr. Abe’s on the issue of specifying the legitimacy of the Self Defense Force in a revised constitution, saying “we need to increase the opportunities for people to reflect on what authorities the Diet has in case of emergency, and whether to clearly state the Self Defense Forces [in the Constitution].”
On the need for supporting women in the workforce, Mr. Kishida focused on the importance of screening tests for women’s health, as well as working on local services and infrastructure to encourage families:
It is necessary to provide budgetary support such as not only screening for breast cancer and uterine cancer, but also to support childbirth costs to reduce the actual burden to zero. With the decreasing birth rate, the population density in the cities is a problem also for welfare, so I think it’s important to think of a policy that addresses the decreasing birth rate also from an urban planning perspective.
The three candidates are set to have a public faceoff at the Japan National Press Club on Saturday September 12, before the LDP leadership vote is officially cast by LDP members on September 14.
A special National Diet session on September 16 will carry out a full parliamentary vote to elect a new prime minister of Japan.
Author: Arielle Busetto