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Politics & Security

Race for Japan’s PM: The Iron Lady, the Digital Reformer, the Moderate, or a Dark Horse?

The result of party elections in Japan is usually predictable. Find out why this one’s not.

Arielle Busetto

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Left to rigth: Taro Kono, Sanae Takaichi, Seiko Noda and Fumio Kishida come head to head in the LDP leadership race.

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The major party in the National Diet of Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is holding leadership elections. Campaigning is set to officially start on September 17, with voting on September 29. 

Yet candidates are already showcasing their policies and personalities in a whirlwind media circus.

As of this writing, three candidates have openly declared their bid to become the next LDP leader: Fumio Kishida, Sanae Takaichi, and Taro Kono.

Shigeru Ishiba had previously pledged to run as well, but on September 14 indicated that he would forgo the leadership bid and support Taro Kono instead. 

Seiko Noda, in a last minute, dark horse move, announced in the evening of September 16, the day before the official start of campaigning, that she secured the necessary 20 party member supporters to endorse her leadership bid. The 61-year-old Fukuoka native will have to formally declare her candidacy on September 17 under the current rules. 

If she joins the fray, this would be the first time that two women have made their bid to become party leaders in the LDP. 

Here’s the twist. Often, in Japanese party elections, the result is predictable. Factions in parties tend to declare their support ahead of time and, as the day of the election comes closer, it becomes progressively clearer who will win.

This was particularly true in the election which saw Yoshihide Suga become prime minister in September, with the majority of the LDP rallying behind him.

Not this time. Even among factions, there are splits on who to support in the leadership race. And if there are four candidates, with no candidate reaching a clear majority, a second vote will take place. 

Whoever prevails will likely be confirmed as the next prime minister in the National Diet, and then will lead the LDP as the parties vie for the wider population’s approval in a general election for members of the Lower House of the Diet sometime in October.

Who are the LDP candidates who have declared so far, and what have they said about their policies? 

Sanae Takaichi: Japan’s Iron Lady?

Sanae Takaichi, 60 years old, hails from Nara Prefecture, and is the second female candidate to run for the LDP leadership race. The first was Yuriko Koike, currently the governor of Tokyo, who sought the job in 2008.

With determined countenance Takaichi declared her LDP leadership bid on September 9, listing her proposed policies in detail in an almost two-hour press conference.

Broadly speaking, she is closer to what is considered the conservative wing of the LDP. She has notably won the support of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and some members of the largest faction in the LDP, the Hosoda faction. Among her past leadership roles, she was the longest serving minister of interior in history under the Shinzo Abe administration.

Takaichi has put forward her main policy proposal, Sanaenomics. She suggests monetary easing, aggressive spending for fiscal stimulus, and foregoing putting Japan’s primary balance in the black until the Bank of Japan reaches 2% inflation. 

Takaichi argues for additional investment in Japan’s economic and technical prowess, including in the fields of technology, robotics, and much more.

Takaichi is also a firm proponent of strengthening economic security and “protecting Japan,” as goes the slogan of her campaign, by avoiding an outflow of technology and technological know-how from the country. 

For example, she called for investment to protect Japan in the field of cybersecurity: “It is a critical situation. In order to protect the information of people, we need to up our policies in cybersecurity.”

One reason Takaichi has gained attention concerns her open support for visiting Yasukuni Shrine, and she defended her position: “It’s my right as a Japanese individual under the freedom of religion to visit Yasukuni to pay my respects to those who have fallen in the wars.”

She is against allowing women to have separate surnames after marriage, and in favor of keeping the male imperial succession line. On the latter point, Takaichi argued, “I have a strong doubt whether it’s acceptable for our generation to reform a system that has been in place for hundreds of years.”

In her bid for the leadership job, she has also drawn from her experience as minister of interior (2014-2017), when she was confronted in 2016 with the Ebola epidemic. 

Informed by that challenge, Takaichi openly called for reform of the Constitution, especially in view of disaster and pandemic management. “We can’t be caught unprepared without a legal framework if confronted by a more deadly virus,” she explained. 

Regarding Article 9, she is in favor of referring to Japan’s self-defense forces as Japan’s “national defense forces” in the Constitution.

As a woman, she has also proposed furthering measures that help support families, and technological advancements that can improve even small things in the everyday life of women, such as micro-mammography for breast cancer prevention. 

Takaichi is known to be a bit of a lone wolf. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that in an article on September 9, Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported that Takaicihi’s aim was to “be a Margaret Thatcher,” Great Britain’s prime minister from 1979 to 1990. Due to her unflinching determination to stand up for her policies, Thatcher was nicknamed “The Iron Lady.”

A fun trivia was that a younger Takaiichi was a drummer in a heavy metal band, and she has installed an electric drum set in her National Diet member accommodations.

Taro Kono: The Digital Reformer

At the age of 58, Taro Kono is the youngest in the LDP leadership race. Several polls put him as the favorite candidate in the race, with Nihon Keizai Shimbun’s poll finding him at 27%, followed by Ishiba at 17%, Kishida at 14%, and Takaiichi at 7%.

As minister in charge of vaccinations since January 2021, Kono has worked to negotiate the purchase of vaccines for Japan in a time of worldwide vaccine shortages. As of September 15, Japan had fully vaccinated more than 51% of the population. Sixty-three percent of the population has at least one jab, surpassing the United States in this measurement for the first time.

Kono reported on September 14 that the government was in the process of smoothing out the logistics for the booster (third) shot rollout, to start as early as this fall.

A member of the Aso faction in the LDP, Kono announced his run for the party leadership position after he gained the support of the faction leader and Finance Minister Taro Aso, but not of his whole faction — an unusual move in the realm of Japanese politics.

He displayed his ability to run a public relations show on September 10 in an event that no other candidate in the leadership bid could match. There were glossy fliers, cameras everywhere, and a confident emcee introducing the star of the show. His new Twitter account, especially set up for the leadership race, gained more than 150,000 followers in less than a week.

His message seems more ambitious, albeit vague, on the future of Japan. “I want to create a Japan where everyone can reach out for their goals, and make their dreams come true, a society where, if someone says, ‘I would like to try this,’ then we can all challenge ourselves together.”

Aside from the catch-all speeches and vigorous gesticulations, Kono is known for being on the more liberal end of the philosophical spectrum in the LDP.

His candidacy is centered around five pillars, which are roughly aimed at protecting the livelihoods of the Japanese, and providing for families. In a speech on September 12, Kono commented, “I have a son, and my wife might complain if I say this, but I know what a joy it is to raise children, as well as the worry that goes with it.”

Kono also proposes a reform of the Constitution to meet the circumstances of the times, and encourages a discussion on the female succession of the imperial line.

He has long pushed for digital reform. He has been digital transformation minister since September 2020, and his weekly press conferences in that capacity have been held online for a couple of months.

On the economy, Kono proposes to create a “warm” society, with a strong economy, although he has refrained from giving an idea of what this means or the scale of policies he would like to pursue.

His views on energy include expressions about investing more in renewable energy to meet the plan forwarded by the Suga government of “becoming carbon neutral by 2050.” Kono said on September 12 that he envisioned nuclear power “eventually becoming obsolete,” but until then embraced “the realistic use of nuclear plants that are proven to be safe to use.”

He is also a keen proponent for bringing more of the national GDP to the countryside location in Japan, rather than concentrating all resources in Tokyo.

“I think that if we provide an infrastructure where people can work remotely, including for example 5G, people with Tokyo salaries can bring their income to the countryside. I think there is enormous potential on that front,” said Kono.

A third-generation politician, he is a graduate of Georgetown University in Washington, DC (School of Foreign Service, 1985) and fluent in English. He also interned with several politicians in the U.S. before returning to Japan.

After working in the private sector, Kono entered politics at the age of 33. He racked up experience as the minister of defense and minister of foreign affairs under the Abe administration.

Kono has a track record for being very direct, and a strong communicator. On his popular Twitter account, he posts anything from policy proposals, occasional banter with netizens, to pictures of what he had for lunch.


Fumio Kishida: The Moderate

At the age of 64, the Hiroshima Prefecture native is the oldest candidate now in the LDP leader race.

He, too, served as foreign minister in the Abe administration in 2015. As former chief of policy in the party, he has experience at the center of the party. He is the only one of the three candidates who ran in the LDP leadership race against Yoshihide Suga in September 2020.

The first to declare his candidacy in the LDP election, Kishida gained the backing of his own faction to secure the minimum support to run in the election.

He explained in his speech announcing his candidacy on September 8 that he was moved to run because of his feeling that the voice of politicians was not reaching the people, and at the same time “the voice of the people is not being heard.”

Kishida is best described as being the most moderate among the three candidates, expressing middle ground views somewhere between Kono and Takaichi. For example, he supports changing the family registry system so that women can keep their own surnames after marriage. At the same time, he supports maintaining the male line of succession for the emperor.

He is also very careful about striking a balance, including in foreign policy and economics.

Questioned about economic policy in a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ) on September 12, Kishida explained that he would center his bid on a “new Japanese kind of capitalism,” which envisioned an “economic growth and distribution” to tackle the “growing disparity in society.”

He explained, however, how this doesn’t mean a redistribution tax, but rather investing more in housing and education support, thereby helping out middle income families.

“The first thing is to encourage economic growth, I would then like for the fruits of the profits to be shared with all members of society,” said Kishida on September 12.

On foreign policy, as foreign minister he was responsible for reaching an agreement with South Korea in 2015 to resolve “finally and irreversibly” the issue of comfort women. (South Korea has since repudiated the agreement.) A strong advocate for nuclear disarmament, he was also key in organizing U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to his home prefecture, Hiroshima, in 2016.

Kishida was asked about his stance vis-à-vis China at the September 12 press conference. While admitting that “discussion needs to be had on issues such as the Senkaku Islands, and China’s presence in the South China Sea,” he said he was not “directly against the One Belt One Road initiative.”

Before becoming a politician in 1993, Kishida worked in a bank in the private sector. Due to his Hiroshima roots, he is also an avid Hiroshima Carp baseball fan.

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Author: Arielle Busetto

Arielle Busetto is a journalist at JAPAN Forward. She has finished the intensive Japanese course of the Inter University Center For Advanced Japanese Studies in Yokohama in summer 2018, and is originally from Siena, Italy.