The Abe Funeral and Kishida’s Road Ahead

Leaders from across the globe are gathering next week in Japan for the state funeral of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated on July 8. The guest list is impressive: more than 4,300 guests will attend, including about 700 visitors from overseas. Among them will be the leaders of Australia, Canada, India, Singapore, and Vietnam. Vice President Harris will lead the U.S. delegation.

For Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, hosting the state funeral was to be a dual opportunity: he could honor Abe’s legacy and simultaneously showcase his own leadership on the global stage. But things have not gone according to plan. Today he finds himself on the political defensive, his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) weighed down by scandal, and the funeral itself a lightning rod for public criticism. According to a Nikkei poll in mid-September, just 33 percent of respondents viewed the state funeral positively, a decline of 10 points in a month; 60 percent of respondents were opposed to the event. Kishida’s own numbers are on a similar downward trajectory—in the Nikkei poll, support for his government fell from 57 percent in August to 43 percent in September.

The principal driver behind this decline is the revelation of LDP connections to the Unification Church, including Abe himself. In many ways, it is an odd scandal. Abe’s assassin cited the former Prime Minister’s alleged ties to the church as his motivation; he blamed the church for his family’s financial ruin, after his mother gave it the entirety of her life savings. As dubious as this rationale may be, it has sparked a frenzied media focus on connections between the church and Japanese politicians. Kishida—who has repeatedly denied any ties himself—has responded by pledging to purge the LDP of connections to the church, even though the ties revealed to date do not appear to be illegal or improper. The party’s investigation found that nearly half of LDP members in the Diet—179 out of 379—had connections to the church, including 121 members identified by name who had significant ties that included (apparently legal) election support. The steady drip of new revelations of contact among high-level LDP members, some of whom were not initially forthcoming about those ties, has kept the issue in the news and further eroded support in opinion polls.

The public reaction to the state funeral itself is more complicated and rooted in Abe’s own unsettled legacy in Japan. Plans for the funeral were controversial from the start—polls in July indicated that opinion was evenly divided between support and opposition. Only one prime minister since World War II has received a state funeral—Shigeru Yoshida, Japan’s first post-occupation prime minister, who died in 1967. Funerals for other Japanese leaders have generally been funded on a shared basis by the government and the ruling party. Opponents of the Abe funeral have questioned its legal basis, arguing that no law exists authorizing such events, or the use of taxpayer funds to pay for them. Some opposition to the funeral is rooted simply in politics: critics who opposed Abe during his time in office now oppose giving him the recognition of a state funeral. And lurking in the backdrop is the lingering post-World War II discomfort in Japan with state-sponsored displays of patriotism, particularly those linked to an individual political leader—a sentiment that ironically is part of what Abe saw as his mission to change.

Kishida has launched a forceful defense of his decision to hold the funeral for Abe. Before a Diet committee on September 8, he argued that Abe’s record as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister; his policy achievements, particularly the transformative impact he had on Japan’s role in the region and beyond; and the outpouring of condolences from abroad all justify a state funeral. Kishida’s government released a cost estimate—a relatively modest ¥1.16 billion (about $8.2 million at current exchange rates), although it is likely to grow—and pledged transparency on government outlays related to the event. And to address the concern about state-sponsored patriotism, the Kishida government has indicated that it will not require government entities to fly flags at half-mast or observe a moment of silence.

These steps may serve to moderate criticism, and more broadly, the hit to Kishida’s political standing could prove to be temporary—though his road back is getting steeper by the day, and the opposition will continue to use the scandal to attack the LDP. It is possible Kishida’s support could recover once the funeral is over, after the Japanese public has witnessed the spectacle of foreign dignitaries paying tribute to Abe, and the national focus on the Unification Church scandal fades.

With the funeral behind him, Kishida will have the opportunity to reset the stage and put his own distinctive stamp on Japan’s direction. Kishida’s critics sarcastically describe him as a “good listener,” amalgamating others’ views with few discernible positions of his own. This characterization is somewhat unfair, and in the months ahead he will have opportunities on the national security front to prove it wrong—though these opportunities also carry political risk. 

Defense Spending and Capabilities

In May Kishida promised President Biden a “significant increase” in defense spending as part of a commitment to fundamentally strengthen Japan’s national security posture. But he did not explicitly endorse the LDP’s recommendation that Japan pursue the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP within five years, and he has studiously refused to provide a specific metric for defense spending growth.

The defense ministry’s draft budget request released at the end of August continues this ambiguity. It calls for a baseline ¥5.6 trillion budget in FY23 to support existing programs—roughly a 1 percent increase over the previous year. It separately identifies seven areas that would be the focus of additional resources—among them stand-off strike capability (addressed in more detail here), integrated air and missile defense, uncrewed systems, space and cyber capabilities, and resilience. But these broad categories include no price tag in the publicly released budget request, and therefore leave open the question of how large the budget increase will be next year and over the five years of a new Medium Term Defense Plan (MTDP). The defense ministry internally has developed budget proposals for each of these categories but has not released them given the unresolved debate over the budget.

Japanese media reports have speculated that funding of these priorities would push next year’s budget above ¥6 trillion, a more than 10 percent increase over the previous year. But the internal debate has sharpened, with fiscal conservatives in the LDP and at the finance ministry arguing that growth in the defense budget should be funded by cuts to other programs or tax increases—conditions that could limit growth in the budget. Other reports—probably pushed by the Finance Ministry—indicate plans for budget gimmickry to inflate the size of any increase, by incorporating spending on the Coast Guard, Self Defense Force pensions, and some civilian research and development programs into the defense budget.

This is a debate that Kishida will have to resolve himself by the end of the year. The 2 percent threshold is not a magic number, and it should not be the metric of success—but significant growth in real terms over the horizon of the MTDP is now baked into Washington’s expectations. During the course of 8 years in office, Abe led a transformation in Japan’s defense policy, including recognizing the right of collective self-defense in certain scenarios and passing legislation in 2015 that significantly expanded Self Defense Force roles and missions in the U.S.-Japan alliance. But his defense budgets were largely flat, and Japan’s investments in new capabilities mostly incremental. Kishida has the opportunity to decisively break from the longstanding framework surrounding Japanese defense spending—and it is critical to his credibility in Washington that he does so.

Relations with the Republic of Korea

Kishida and new Republic of Korea (ROK) President Yoon Suk Yeol met briefly on September 21 in New York, their first sit-down bilateral engagement since Yoon took office in May. The cautious engagement—which the Japanese side was eager to characterize as “informal”—builds on a steady pace of trilateral meetings with the United States. Leaders from the three countries met at the NATO summit in June, and in recent weeks there have been meetings of national security advisors, foreign ministers, and defense ministers.

Behind the scenes, Japanese and Korean diplomats are engaged bilaterally in negotiations to resolve the most challenging issue between them—compensation for conscripted Korean labor during Japan’s occupation. In 2018, the Supreme Court of Korea ordered two Japanese companies to pay compensation to Korean forced labor victims, but the companies refused, arguing that all such claims were settled in the 1965 treaty of normalization. A lower court subsequently issued an order to seize corporate assets to pay the claims; the companies have appealed this ruling, which is now before the Supreme Court. The Japanese government has warned of “serious” ramifications if liquidation of Japanese company assets were to proceed.

Negotiations to resolve the dispute have quietly made progress and are likely soon to mature to a point where Kishida and Yoon must decide whether there are grounds for an agreement. For Kishida, there will be considerable political risk in doing so, given the strong skepticism toward the ROK in the right wing of the LDP. Kishida was foreign minister in 2015 when Abe and then-ROK president Park Geun-hye reached agreement to resolve the comfort women issue; the unraveling of that deal under Park’s successor Moon Jae-in is the source of deep doubts within the LDP about the merits of any agreement that could be reversed under new political leadership in Seoul. But the strategic benefits of a breakthrough would be substantial, and would bring Japan, the ROK, and the United States closer together at a time when North Korea appears poised to resume provocations and China is exerting increased pressure on Taiwan.

Washington has signaled that it places a high priority on improving trilateral ties, but otherwise has not been involved directly in these talks—another positive sign, because it indicates that the momentum is entirely driven by the parties themselves. But it will play an important role in endorsing any agreement.

Relations with China

Perhaps the most politically fraught area for Kishida is the relationship with China. The competitive features of Japan’s relationship with China reflect a broad consensus that Beijing is a revisionist power, determined to alter the status quo in its favor through the use of coercion. At the same time, Tokyo has sought to restore high-level channels of communication with Beijing, which largely atrophied during the Covid-19 pandemic. Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa noted in a speech at CSIS in July that Japan seeks to “build a constructive and stable relationship with China.” But Kishida has spoken with Chinese president Xi Jinping just once, a congratulatory phone call after his election as prime minister last October. 

Before August, Tokyo and Beijing were coordinating a sequence of engagements intended to culminate in a meeting between Kishida and Xi in November. This plan was upended by China’s military actions after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which included launches of five ballistic missiles that landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Foreign Minister Wang Yi canceled a meeting with Hayashi in Cambodia in early August, purportedly because Japan joined other members of the G7 in calling out China’s military activities. But a planned meeting between Japan national security advisor Takeo Akiba and State Councilor Yang Jiechi in mid-August went ahead as scheduled, and Foreign Minister Hayashi told the media on August 19 that the two governments are still considering plans for a summit on the margins of multilateral meetings in Asia this fall. A meeting between Kishida and Xi could serve as an opportunity to define more clearly the meaning of a “constructive and stable” relationship with Beijing, but Kishida will have to weigh the benefits of pursuing a summit against the deepening negative public sentiment toward China.

One of Abe’s core achievements was establishing a new equilibrium in Tokyo’s relations with Beijing, one that combined robust regional diplomacy and a stronger defense posture to balance growing Chinese power, with pragmatic economic engagement that acknowledged the continuing importance of interdependence to both countries’ prosperity. With Japan’s business community increasingly concerned by the current state of ties with China, Kishida will be judged in part by his success in restoring this equilibrium.

With the Abe funeral behind him, Kishida has the opportunity to move beyond Abe’s legacy and chart his own course. The LDP’s slogan under Kishida is “decisiveness and execution” (ketsudan to jikko). Kishida has the opportunity to demonstrate that decisiveness on multiple issues in the weeks ahead.

Christopher Johnstone is senior adviser and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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