Japan’s Ruling Party Elects a New Leader

Today the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) elected former foreign minister Fumio Kishida as its new leader and presumptive prime minister ahead of a parliamentary vote next week. He is tasked with leading the LDP campaign for a general election that will take place later this fall after his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, stepped down after just one year in office. Kishida’s appointment suggests continuity in Japan’s strategic trajectory centered on strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance and preserving a rules-based international order, an agenda the United States will embrace wholeheartedly as Japan navigates this period of political transition.               

Q1: What happened in the LDP race, and what comes next? 

A1: The LDP’s 382 lawmakers in the Diet (parliament) cast their votes alongside 382 votes allocated to rank-and-file party members across the country, with a majority required to secure victory. After an initial round of voting, Kishida led with 256 votes, followed by vaccine minister Taro Kono (255 votes), former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi (188 votes), and Acting Secretary General of the LDP Seiko Noda (63 votes). Kishida then defeated Kono by 87 votes in a runoff and is all but guaranteed to be appointed prime minister during a session of the Diet on October 4 as the LDP enjoys a majority in the chamber. Kishida will then announce his cabinet, followed by a policy speech to the Diet that will set the stage for a general election in the Lower House that must be held by the end of November.

This was Kishida’s second bid for the premiership after losing to Suga in the 2020 party leadership race. Drawing from his experience as former party policy chief, Kishida ran a strong campaign with a broad set of policy recommendations and utilized his deep knowledge on the inner workings of the party to secure the backing of his fellow Diet members. Two factors likely helped Kishida prevail. The first was anxiety among senior LDP members that picking Kono, a popular figure among the public generally considered a maverick, would constitute generational change that was risky for them. The other was internal LDP polling that showed that with Covid subsiding in Japan, the party didn’t need a populist like Kono to lead the charge heading into the general election. Recent polls indicate that the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito (Clean Government Party) can likely retain a majority in the Lower House, but Kishida will have to move quickly to gain public trust as he outlines his policy priorities. 

Q2: What are Kishida’s policy priorities? 

A2: Kishida vowed to focus on the response to Covid-19 and proposed establishing a new government agency for crisis management in that context. His economic policy platform includes stimulus spending consistent with the approach adopted by former prime minister Shinzo Abe (who served for nearly eight years before Suga), but his platform differs from Abe’s in pledging to combat income disparity and distribute wealth more equally across the economy. Kishida’s foreign policy framework is largely consistent with Abe’s (he served as Abe’s foreign minister) with emphasis on enhancing Japan’s defense capabilities, including missile defense in response to the North Korea threat; promoting democratic values and human rights (he has been outspoken about the situation in Hong Kong, the plight of the Uyghur minority in China’s Xinjiang region, and the importance of supporting Taiwan); strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance; and networking with the United States and other like-minded countries through the Quad (the United States, Japan, Australia, and India) consistent with Abe’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) framework. Kishida will likely try to maintain a nuanced China policy balancing deterrence with diplomacy to stabilize bilateral relations, though persistent concerns about Chinese coercion in the LDP could favor a robust debate about defense policy in the near term.   

Q3: Are there implications for U.S.-Japan relations? 

A3: Kishida offers considerable experience in diplomacy, having served as foreign minister under Abe, and he is positioned to continue the strategic trajectory Abe outlined under the FOIP. Kishida’s platform includes a commitment to nuclear disarmament, but he served as foreign minister at a time when the United States and Japan strengthened dialogue on extended deterrence. Japan is a recognized leader in defending the rules-based international order, and the Biden administration will likely welcome Kishida’s emphasis on this theme as it seeks to develop its own Asia strategy based fundamentally on close coordination with allies and partners. The passing of the baton from Suga to Kishida just one year after Abe stepped down could invite some concern about political stability in Japan. (See the latest edition of Debating Japan for details.) But strong support for the LDP in public opinion polls (exceeding 30 percent on average compared to single digits for the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party) suggests Kishida has a good chance to preside over a long-term government. Moreover, a consensus on foreign policy within the LDP favors continuity in the U.S.-Japan alliance strategy and a sustained commitment to ensuring security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies CSIS (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., and director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS Japan Chair. Yuko Nakano is an associate fellow with the CSIS Japan Chair and associate director of the U.S.-Japan Strategic Leadership Program at CSIS. 

Critical Questions 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).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies

Yuko Nakano
Fellow, Japan Chair, and Associate Director, U.S.-Japan Strategic Leadership Program