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Polls Say PM Kishida is Not Popular, Yet His Achievements Show Him In a Good Light

Popular or not, in Kishida's term wages have risen faster than at any time since the 1990s, the economy is functioning more normally and investors are noticing.

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Prime Minister Fumio Kishida responds to questions from the press at the Prime Minister's Office on February 2. (© Sankei by Yuta Yasumoto)

I am certain that there many managers in Japan who are not particularly popular. This alone does not prevent them from doing a good job. Indeed, there are probably even quite a few efficient bosses who are actively disliked by their staff. Leaders don't always need to be nice when it comes to making decisions that ultimately benefit an organization.

However, in the world of Japanese politics, there is an obsession with popularity. Measured by opinion polls, it is a longtime source of strife for prime ministers.

Kishida on Trial

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is going through a time of trial.

The Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, which generally leans to the left on political matters, recently said that Mr Kishida is Japan's least popular prime minister since 1947. The paper's survey also found that the cabinet is deeply unpopular with the members of the public it contacted.

This is not surprising. Mr Kishida has never been particularly popular. He was elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - and thus became prime minister - in October 2021. That was thanks largely to the backing of certain influential politicians within his party who were heads of factions.

For most of his term in office, he has been beset by minor scandals and rather poor communications. Nevertheless, as prime minister, he has overseen major reforms to national security policy. Moreover, I have been consistently impressed by his performance at international meetings. Few people have represented Japan so well on the global stage.

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PM Kishida apologizes for the politics and money scandal of the LDP factions at the beginning of the House of Councilors Budget Committee meeting. January 29, 2024. (© Sankei by Ataru Haruna)

Fundraising Scandal

In late 2023, a nasty scandal started making headlines. Several senior LDP members were alleged to have been involved in corruption linked to fundraising events. Four cabinet members were demoted.

Even though Mr Kishida himself was not among the alleged wrongdoers, he nevertheless apologized to Japan's Diet. He bowed and asked for forgiveness before the national parliament on January 29. 

If he is judged on his popularity, he is unlikely to win reelection as LDP president when his term ends in September. He may even resign as prime minister before then.

However, that would be a shame.

Mr Kishida has important international work to do in the months ahead, including meetings with the leaders of the United States, South Korea, and – potentially – China.

The belligerent North Korean leader Kim Jong Un knows where he stands with Mr Kishida.

I also think we should give him more time to implement the policies linked to his so-called "new capitalism" agenda. It aims to apply some sensible moral principles to the work of corporations large and small. Those could flourish if the economic situation improves - and there are many signs that it will.

US President Joe Biden at the White House. December 12, 2023. (©Reuters by Leah Millis)

Unpopular Leaders

Mr Kishida is not the only leader doing badly in opinion polls.

Joe Biden's record-low popularity ratings get a lot of attention in the United States. Ruchir Sharma, the chair of Rockefeller International, recently tracked leaders' approval ratings in 20 major democracies. Using leading pollsters such as Gallup, he found that no leader in the developed world has an approval rating above 50%.

The only prime minister to have seen her standing rise among the public is Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. This came as a surprise because she had received much negative press at home and abroad due to her associations with the so-called "far right."

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In office, Meloni has proved to be charismatic and a shrewd diplomat. She will meet Japan's prime minister regularly this year as Italy currently holds the rotating presidency of the G7, which was Japan's role in 2023.

Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni holds her New Year press conference in Rome on January 4, 2024. (©Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane)

Ruchir Sharma speculates that people in developed nations are jaded with their leaders due to decades of slow economic growth. In turn, this has gradually eroded the wealth of the middle classes.

The extravagant mood of Japan's Bubble Era indeed seems like a distant memory. Compared to most other rich nations, it has suffered a sharper long-term decline in per capita income growth. Albeit, Japan's slide is from a high starting point.

But does this explain why Mr Kishida is one of the world's least popular leaders if we base our judgment on various opinion polls? Those polls say his apparent approval rating is only about 20 percent.

Bright Outlook

Perhaps those who dislike Mr Kishida and his government should pause for a moment and compare their situation to a couple of years ago when Yoshihide Suga was the prime minister.

Many workers are better off and wages have risen faster than at any time since the 1990s. Admittedly, that's partly in response to rising inflation. But it suggests that the long era of deflation is over, and the economy is functioning more normally.

Morgan Stanley, an investment bank, reckons Japan has "convincingly emerged from three decades of economic stagnation." International investors are putting a lot of money into Japanese stocks, and last year the Nikkei index rose to its highest level since the bubble burst.

The current prime minister cannot take sole credit for all these positive trends. But he has nevertheless created a benign environment for business.

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The decision on whether Mr Kishida stays or goes rests with the members of the LDP. As they appraise the impact of changing the party president – and thus the prime minister – they should look closely at Mr Kishida's record. That's a far better way to judge him than relying on flimsy data from opinion polls.

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Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent

Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his articles and essays on JAPAN Forward.

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