The race is on to pick Japan’s new prime minister - the man who will succeed conservative leader Shinzo Abe.
After four terms in office - officially making him the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history, Abe announced his shock resignation on August 28 due to chronic health reasons that have plagued the 65-year-old’s political career for years. “I apologize to the people of Japan for leaving my post with a year left in office amid the coronavirus woes,” said Abe, a staunch conservative and nationalist known for his aggressive signature economic policies known as “Abenomics”.
His governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will now move to replace him in a leadership vote on September 14 - and three names keep cropping up as frontrunners: current chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga, widely tipped by observers and experts to win, and former ministers Shigeru Ishiba and Fumio Kishida, each championing their own causes and expertise.
No female candidates are in the running (an accurate reflection of political patriarchy in Japan, analysts and experts say) - but whoever succeeds Abe to become Japan’s next leader will have their work cut out for them.
“The current coronavirus, the upcoming Tokyo Olympic games [postponed to 2021] and ongoing tensions with China and North Korea, these are all issues that Abe will be handing over to his successor,” said Yuki Tatsumi, director of the Washington-based Stimson Center’s Japan program.
Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s right hand man
All bets are on Abe’s top aide Suga, who is currently serving as chief cabinet secretary - a position he has held since December 2012. Born to a family of strawberry farmers in Yuzawa city, the 71-year-old Suga is expected to cruise to victory in next week’s vote, according to analysts and experts. The Stimson Center’s Tatsumi said that political continuity remains “a top priority” for the party during this crucial period. “Suga has seniority and continuity, making him the perfect candidate to succeed Abe because he knows the ins and outs of the party and how best to execute policies,” Tatsumi told VICE News. “Japan is battling efforts to combat the coronavirus and despite that, has committed to hosting the Olympics. If Abe had resigned a year ago, this would be a very different picture but now is not the time for the party to bet on a new leader who may have different ideas or radical visions.”
According to Koichi Nakano, dean and political science professor at the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Tokyo’s Sophia University, Suga had “already won the race”.
“There is no other scenario. Suga was picked as Abe’s successor by party bosses and is in the best position to serve as prime minister because he will ensure a smooth power transition and continuity of Shinzo Abe’s policies.”
Shortly after registering his candidacy on Tuesday, September 8, Suga reiterated his commitment to fighting the coronavirus in Japan and reaffirmed that he would stay on course with Abenomics. “Suga secured the necessary support almost immediately,” said political scientist Charles Weathers from Osaka City University. “I believe the current contest now will just be for show, mainly the chance for Suga’s rivals and former ministers Shigeru Ishiba and Fumio Kishida, to assert their presence in the party while giving them useful public exposure.”
Shigeru Ishiba, military otaku and the popular vote
The 63-year-old self-professed military otaku (a Japanese term for geek obsession) is said to be fond of building his own miniature model aircrafts and warships. From the Yazu district in the Tottori Prefecture, Ishiba is known for his knowledge in the defence realm. His expertise could prove invaluable as Tokyo navigates tensions with Beijing in the South China Sea.
A regular favorite in opinion polls, the former Japanese defence minister presents himself as a rare critical party voice against outgoing leader Shinzo Abe, even taking to the popular Animal Crossing game to build support for his bid to succeed Abe.
“The Japanese public still wants an LDP-led government but after Abe has resigned, they will ask: “Who has a different style?”,” Ishiba previously told Reuters. “I’ve continuously challenged Abe and have more support than those who haven’t. This is not based on performance but on expectations.”
One early poll, conducted in August by the Kyodo News agency, picked Ishiba as the candidate most likely to succeed Abe. But Suga quickly overtook Ishiba, dominating party support and outperforming his rival in media coverage. “Shigeru Ishiba used to be ahead of other candidates but that is no longer the case. “Japanese media plays a big role in shaping public opinion and perception and continues to lead their broadcast coverage on Suga as the clear party favorite. Because of this, he overtook Ishiba,” Nakano told VICE News.
“Shigeru Ishiba still remains popular among the general public but not among long time LDP supporters,” said the Stimson Center’s Tatsumi, who highlighted a 2015 incident which saw Ishiba, despite being a vocal critic of party factionalism, launching his own faction with the aim of succeeding Abe. “This is the kind of thing that the party wouldn’t forget. It can be counted as a cardinal crime,” Tatsumi said.
Fumio Kishida, a passionate voice against nuclear power
During his time in office, Abe proved to be a smooth international operator - forging key diplomatic alliances with many countries like the U.S. and other world leaders while campaigning for Japan’s causes, particularly against China and North Korea.
He carried out this work closely with his former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, a staunchly conservative and pragmatic politician, according to Tatsumi who met Kishida back in February 2013 when he was accompanying Abe on an official trip to Washington. “He came across as being very earnest and sincere. If anything, he was a very loyal foreign policy diplomat during his time in office,” Tatsumi recalled. “He comes from a very different wing of the LDP.”
Kishida may be known best as Japan’s former foreign minister but others from his hometown of Hiroshima will know him for being passionate about nuclear disarmament. He penned a 2016 opinion piece for CNN in which he expressed his views about Japan’s nuclear power ahead of hosting historic G7 talks in the city.
“The issue of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation has always had a special resonance for myself and others living in my hometown of Hiroshima,” he wrote in reference to the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “I listened to young people who gathered in the city to talk about how they might help make progress in achieving their wish for a world without nuclear weapons … I am determined to discuss the issue thoroughly.”