Kishida in Control? Trend Lines in Japanese Politics

On September 13, Japanese prime minister Kishida Fumio reshuffled his cabinet, along with some key posts for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to boost his approval rating ahead of a legislative session focused on economic policy and other key pillars of his policy agenda. 

While he has been credited for his proactive approach to foreign and defense policy, including successfully hosting the Hiroshima G7 Summit and forging a partnership with South Korea, challenges on the home front, notably the setbacks facing the government’s initiative to replace health insurance certificates with “My Number” identification cards, continue to offset any gains he has achieved in diplomacy. 

Since the start of the year, there have been persistent rumors regarding when and if Kishida will dissolve the Lower House of the Diet and call an election, which he must do by October 2025. Nearly every opinion poll result, political maneuver, and policy initiative put forth by his government has been scrutinized with the anticipation of an imminent snap election. While the exact timing of the next Lower House election remains uncertain, one event fixed on the political calendar is the LDP presidential election in September 2024, which will determine whether Kishida continues as prime minister.

Party factions play a crucial role in Japanese politics, particularly in electing a prime minister. Over the past two years of his tenure, Kishida, representing the fourth-largest faction, has carefully prioritized maintaining cohesion among the various factions within the party. His appointments in the recent reshuffle, which were assigned evenly in proportion to the size of each LDP faction, illustrate his sensitivity to internal party dynamics while attempting to bring in a breath of fresh air, with 11 out of 19 cabinet members serving for the first time.

Furthermore, by reappointing the LDP’s vice president Aso Taro and secretary general Motegi Toshimitsu—who lead the second- and third-largest factions, respectively, and whose support helped Kishida win the party leadership election back in 2021—Kishida opted to keep them as allies. How Prime Minister Kishida navigates the following three key events will help us gauge the extent of his leadership strength as he prepares for his reelection bid.

Timing for a Snap Election

With the cabinet’s disapproval rating currently exceeding its approval rating in most polls (the latest NHK poll showed 43 percent disapproval versus 36 percent approval), the likelihood of the prime minister calling for a general election appears slim in the near future, but rumors of a snap election continue to swirl.

The recurrent speculations surrounding a snap election are primarily rooted in political calculations. Leading the coalition to victory in a general election would almost certainly secure Kishida’s second term. With no significant events on the political calendar that could boost his approval rating before the party leadership contest, proponents of an early election argue that the ruling coalition should capitalize on the divided and weak political opposition. Adding to the urgency is the expected decline in public support once the government unveils concrete plans for a tax increase to fund defense expenditures in December (which it may choose to delay again).

On the other hand, more cautious voices emphasize concerns over Kishida’s low approval rating and the prospect of dissolving the Diet without a clear justification, such as the approaching end of a term or a pressing policy debate that warrants a public mandate. 

The earliest feasible timing for an election might be this fall, potentially after the passage of the supplementary budget, which is targeted for mid-November. Another plausible timeframe would be next spring, following the Diet’s approval of the FY 2024 budget in March.

As time passes, Kishida’s options become increasingly limited, along with the window for maximizing his grip on power before the LDP presidential race. However, the fact remains that he still has the option to delay calling for an election for another two years, and he may well choose to wait until after the party leadership election next fall. 

October By-Elections

The first test for Kishida and his new government after the reshuffle will be two by-elections on October 22. In the Tokushima-Kochi district in Shikoku, an Upper House seat will be contested following the resignation of a LDP member over his misconduct. The district’s unique setup, spanning two neighboring prefectures, adds intricacy to local politics and campaign strategy. 

The LDP is also seeking to defend its seat in the Nagasaki by-election for the Lower House by fielding a fresh face who enjoys some name recognition as the son of a former cabinet minister. Nagasaki, a port city with shipyards and manufacturing plants, is a stronghold of unions with affiliations to the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), adding a layer of complexity to the campaign for both camps.

While the LDP is anticipated to retain these two seats, the aforementioned factors make it challenging for political pundits to confidently predict the outcome. Securing victories under Kishida’s leadership can enhance his prospects for reelection next year, whereas losing one or both of these contests may cast doubt on his ability to lead the ruling coalition in the next general election. 

It is also worth noting that these will be the first elections under the newly appointed chair of the LDP’s election strategy committee, Obuchi Yuko. Obuchi, the daughter of former prime minister Obuchi Keizo, had long been considered a rising star, but her rise to the top was put on hold after she resigned as the Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry in 2014 over campaign spending violations. Obuchi is expected to be the party’s public face in the campaign alongside other top party leaders. This could mark the initial step toward rehabilitating her public image and potentially position her as a more influential player. 

A New Stimulus Package and Ongoing Funding Debates

Kishida’s government is set to finalize a new economic stimulus package by the end of October. In the most recent Bank of Japan survey, the majority of respondents expected the economic outlook to remain unchanged in one year, although there was a slight increase in those anticipating improvement. Moreover, the number of households reporting worsening circumstances rose from 53 percent to 56.8 percent in six months, reflecting persistent pessimism among Japanese households. 

The stimulus package, termed “drastic” by Kishida, centers on five pillars: (1) combating inflation; (2) boosting wage and income growth; (3) promoting domestic investment; (4) alleviating the adverse impacts of a declining population, and (5) encouraging infrastructure investment. A draft supplementary budget to fund the stimulus package is expected to be submitted to the Diet when the new session begins in late October.

In parallel to the formulation of the stimulus measures and the supplementary budget, the LDP and the government will continue their debates on how to fund the increased defense spending and the proposed childcare programs. With a wide range of programs on the table, it is crucial for Kishida’s government to clarify how it intends to fund these initiatives. For example, offering tax breaks to support the stimulus package while simultaneously introducing tax hikes to source the defense spending raises concerns about mixed signals to consumers and the market, potentially undermining the effectiveness of economic policy.

While robust support for child-rearing families or the workforce has the potential to boost Prime Minister Kishida’s popularity, it also carries the risk of backlash unless the government effectively communicates its plans, particularly on funding, and deliver tangible results—a challenge that extends to the broader set of policy initiatives introduced by the Kishida administration.

In conclusion, two years into his three-year term, Prime Minister Kishida finds himself at a pivotal juncture. At present there is no strong contender poised to challenge Kishida in the next leadership contest, but the upcoming by-elections, the formulation of a new stimulus package, ongoing funding debates, and his decision on election timing all pose significant tests. Kishida’s ability to navigate these complexities will ultimately determine the course of his political future. 

Yuko Nakano is a fellow with the Japan Chair and associate director of the U.S.-Japan Strategic Leadership Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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