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Predictions 2024: When the Time Comes for a New PM, Will it be a Woman?

PM Kishida's days are numbered. With domestic scandals and international challenges, predictions are for a female prime minister to be considered for the job.

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Happy New Year to JAPAN Forward readers. We are pleased to bring you "Predictions 2024," a special New Year's series sharing the foresight and expectations of selected contributors for the coming year in their fields of specialty, continuing with Duncan Bartlett, the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward.

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I believe that Yoko Kamikawa will make an important trip to Washington in 2024. She will hail the crucial role of women in resolving conflicts and working towards peace.

I expect she will meet Vice President Kamala Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. She is likely to give a speech to a group of highflyers at Harvard University, where she once studied, fielding questions from bright and ambitious young women. Her hosts may even throw a party with famous guests, such as Gwyneth Paltrow or even Taylor Swift.

What I do not yet know is whether Ms Kamikawa will enjoy this spell in the limelight in America as Japan's first female prime minister.

Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa answers questions at the House of Representatives Budget Committee on November 22. (© Sankei by Ataru Haruna)

Many people would like to see a woman lead the nation. Ms Kamikawa has extensive political experience. Although she has only been the foreign minister since September 2023, she has already impressed her international counterparts with her conscientious approach.

But for her to rise to the top, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will need to resign. And then she would also require the backing of fellow lawmakers within the governing party, the Liberal Democratic Party.

Kishida's Crisis

In my view, the chances of Mr Kishida continuing as prime minister until the end of 2024 are looking slim. He is becoming an electoral liability, with diminishing support from the public, due to his perceived mishandling of several domestic issues.

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He plans to return ¥40,000 JPY ($267 USD) to each taxpayer in Japan in 2024 - as well as to hand out cash to lower-income households. However, his proposals have not been well communicated. And this has led to frustration within his party. LDP Diet member Hiroshige Seko said the tax rebate plans were confusing. He criticized the "weakness in the prime minister's decisions and words."

The LDP suffered further damage to its reputation in December when several members were alleged to have been involved in a corruption scandal relating to political fundraising. This led to resignations, sackings, and even arrests. 

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on November 4 became the first Japanese prime minister to address the Philippine Congress (©Reuters)

Impressive Performance

Despite the grumbles over the tax rebates, the Japanese economy is in relatively good shape. Its gross domestic product was forecast to be the second-highest in the G7 last year, according to the financial news service, Bloomberg.

"Under the slogan of 'Economy, economy, economy,' I will prioritize the economy above all else," Mr Kishida said at the opening of the current session of parliament in October 2023.

And Japan's biggest business lobby, the Keidanren, is pressing companies to consider wage rises with "enthusiasm and determination" in 2024. It has proposed a target increase of around 4%.

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shakes hands with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Hiroshima, Japan, May 21, 2023. (© Yuichi Yamazaki/Pool via REUTERS)

On the international stage, Mr Kishida has been consistently clear about the risks posed by China's threat to change the status quo by force. His words are backed with action, such as a doubling of Japan's defense budget.

Mr Kishida has also realized the dire implications of the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine. Unlike some other world leaders, he has remained steadfast in his support for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whom he has met many times.

In my view, Mr Kishida did an excellent job in 2023 as the president of the G7. The summit he hosted in Hiroshima involving Mr Zelenskyy, as well as the leaders of India and South Korea, was a great success.

Indeed, the rapprochement between the South Koreans and the Japanese has been one of the most remarkable recent events in world politics. Mr Kishida, South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol, and Joe Biden should be proud of their achievements.

Prime Minister Kishida, US President Biden, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol shake hands at Camp David. August 18, 2023. (©Kyodo)

However, there is one key area in which the Prime Minister made no progress. As a nuclear pacifist from Hiroshima, he wanted the world to take steps towards nuclear disarmament. No nuclear-armed state took any such step in 2024. Indeed, North Korea’s nuclear program progressed at an alarming pace.

Awaiting a Leader

President Biden wants to host a state visit by a Japanese leader to Washington in 2024. The invitation was sent to Mr Kishida but perhaps it will be his successor who goes instead.

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Could that person be Yoko Kamikawa? The Americans like her. The US Ambassador to Tokyo, Rahm Emanuel describes her as "a very capable and persuasive voice on behalf of our alliance, our shared interests, and our respect for a rules-based order."

Surely, such enthusiastic support would be a boost when applying for the most important political job in Japan.

But I perceive a problem. Ms Kamikawa cannot rely on cross-factional support within the LDP. Given the tribal nature of the party, that may scupper her promotion chances, no matter how talented she is.

We will have to wait to see what happens within the LDP. However, I do not expect it to lose power in 2024. Even though opinion polls show that support for the governing party among the public has declined, it remains far more trusted than rivals such as the Japan Innovation Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai) or the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

China's President Xi Jinping in San Francisco, California, on November 17, 2023. (© REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Menace and Threats

Whoever holds the top office in Japan in 2024 must deal with pressing concerns on foreign policy.

North Korea remains a menace. The South Koreans have warned that Kim Jong Un is ready to launch another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) soon. There is also a risk of another North Korean nuclear test in 2024. 

China's leader Xi Jinping wants to meet Japan's Prime Minister early in the new year. No state visit to Beijing is suggested. Instead, Mr Xi wants the Japanese leader to join him in South Korea for a three-way summit of East Asian leaders.

Xi Jinping Senkaku defense panel defense boost Japan China maritime. predictions Quad Senkaku Islands
A large China Coast Guard vessel equipped with a 76mm gun, was caught in Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands, Ishgaki City, frequently in 2023. This image is from November 2022. (Provided by the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters)

It sounds like a chance for the Chinese to press the South Koreans to be less friendly towards Japan. I know from making my weekly podcast China In Context that Mr Xi has grand ambitions of reshaping the world order to suit the interests of the Chinese Communist Party. He is powerful and cunning and can scare other national leaders.

This is therefore a good time for Japan to pursue its national interests while showing robust support for its allies. Especially the United States. Japan's prime minister should continue to shape the global agenda through the G7 and the United Nations.

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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 other articles and essays.

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