Japan’s Election Was Closer Than Usual, Even Though Party in Power Has Hit Snooze

TOKYO – Japan has had no shortage of faceless prime ministers for decades, a revolving door of forgotten leaders almost as soon as they leave office. The most recent to come to light, which lasted only a year, was criticized for a communication style that often seemed like a cure for insomnia.

Now comes Fumio Kishida, who was elected as prime minister last month by the ruling Liberal Democrats and led the party to victory Sunday in a closer-than-usual parliamentary election.

In anointing 64-year-old Mr. Kishida last month, the Liberal Democrats overlooked outspoken hipster who was popular with the public and a far-right nationalist who would have been the first female leader.

The gamble most likely cost the party votes in close contests across the country, but it retained its simple majority in Parliament. Still, faced with public discontent over the economic stagnation and the government’s initial handling of the coronavirus crisis, the Liberal Democrats lost seats that included some held by prominent party leaders.

Liberal Democrats had won 261 seats as of early Monday, surpassing the 233 needed for a majority, according to NHK, the public broadcaster. The party, however, lost 23 it had held since the last lower house elections in 2017, when then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe led the match to a resounding victory.

The main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, also lost seats.

Kishida said the result showed that the electorate had given the Liberal Democrats “very valuable credit.”

As a leader a little lighter than his predecessor, Yoshihide sugaThe Japanese media still describe Mr. Kishida as “boring” and he has a hard time connecting with the public, or even with his followers and friends.

“His speech sounds so serious that it doesn’t sound interesting even if he intended to say something interesting,” said Ikuzo Kubota, 67, president of a real estate management company in Hiroshima, who has known Mr. Kishida for more than 30 years. “Even now, sometimes I think I should learn to say things in an interesting way.”

The rise of Kishida, a former foreign minister, is a powerful reflection of the entrenched power of the Liberal Democrats in Japan. He was selected precisely for his milquetoast persona, political experts said, as he allows power brokers behind the scenes to project their agenda onto him. And the party made its choice confident that I could win the election despite his lack of charisma.

Hoping to come out of the election less weakened than expected, Kishida crossed the country on chartered flights during the two-week campaign period. At his last campaign stop on Saturday night, in front of a crowded plaza in front of a Tokyo train station, Kishida received a handful of polite applause as he yelled a hearty “Good night.”

His voice repeatedly cracked as he tried to project enthusiasm into his speech, stumbling on his promises to build a new style of economy and protect Japan in the face of growing regional instability. It ended with a warning that Japanese democracy would be threatened if the country’s Communist Party won more seats in Parliament.

Kishida’s rhetoric about a “new capitalism” that would reduce income inequality, a platform aimed at a disgruntled public hit hard by coronavirus-related trade restrictions, has grown more vague over the course of the campaign.

A proposal to increase taxes on capital gains has been rolled back. Instead, he has reverted to an economic manual familiar to Liberal Democrats, calling for more tax spending on projects backed by big industries like construction, which generally support the party.

“It’s almost like a figurehead for other party figures to get their ideas across,” said James Brady, Japan’s chief analyst at Teneo, a risk advisory consulting firm. “He is not a strong leader. He’s not someone who comes up with a lot of ideas. “

Like many other Liberal Democrats, Kishida grew up in a political family. Both his grandfather and father served in the House of Representatives and Mr. Kishida began his political career as his father’s secretary.

Although Mr. Kishida represents a district of Hiroshima and his family is from the area, he grew up mainly in Tokyo. He spent three years in New York when his father was stationed there for a period at the Department of Commerce.

He often cites the formative experience of attending a public elementary school in the Elmhurst section of Queens, and describes an incident in 1965 when a white classmate refused to hold his hand as instructed by a teacher on a field trip. Mr. Kishida says the moment instilled in him a lifelong commitment to fairness and justice.

Back in Japan, Mr. Kishida was a passionate baseball player, although, by his own admission, mediocre. He tried, and failed, three times to pass the entrance exam to the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious state university.

Eventually he enrolled at Waseda, one of the best private universities in Tokyo. In “Kishida Vision,” a memoir published last year, he wrote that he was more interested in music and mahjong than academics during his undergraduate years.

Mr. Kishida began a career in banking, gaining empathy, he wrote, for individuals and small businesses struggling to pay off their loans.

When his father died of cancer at 65, Kishida ran for the Hiroshima seat in 1993 and won. He has held various cabinet positions and was Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister during the Prime Minister’s tenure. Shinzo Abe.

He didn’t make much of an impression on his colleagues. “I have no recollection of him even though I met him every week at cabinet meetings,” said Yoichi Masuzoe, a former governor of Tokyo who served as health minister when Mr. Kishida was a minister to charge of Okinawa and a series of islands known as the Northern Territories.

Some foreign ministry officials nicknamed him “Chihuahua,” referring to him behind his back as a “kind of polite dog,” said General Nakatani, a former defense minister who has known Kishida for 30 years.

A lawmaker whom Kishida met in college and described as one of his best friends went on to endorse a rival, Taro kono, in the recent leadership election of the Liberal Democrats.

Kishida lacks the arrogance or arrogance that characterizes other politicians. He “listens to people, is calm and never speaks ill of others,” Nakatani said. “He is not being selfish.”

He was Minister of Foreign Affairs when President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima in 2016, and when South Korea and Japan signed an agreement in 2015 to compensate so-called comfort women, the term for those taken as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II. But Mr. Kishida rarely receives credit for these achievements.

If he is remembered, he is like a heavy drinker who maintains his dignity and leaves the bar before midnight. In his memoirs, he wrote about pairing Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, drink for drink. On one occasion, Kishida threw a birthday party for his Russian counterpart and gave him a bottle of Suntory Hibiki 21 whiskey, which sells for about $ 750.

When Caroline kennedy was the United States ambassador in Tokyo, Mr. Kishida gave him T-shirts, aprons and mugs with photographs or cartoons of his face.

His attempts to enchant himself on social media have sometimes failed or led to ridicule.

A post he shared on Twitter and Instagram, which showed his wife standing in the kitchen doorway as he sat at the table eating a dinner she had prepared, he scoffed outright. Videos showing his wife, Yuko, 57, and their three children cheering him on, have been a bit more popular.

“He’s a bit out of step social and cultural with most of the population,” said Shihoko Goto, a Northeast Asia senior associate at the Wilson Center in Washington.

His modesty underpins a political pragmatism that allows him to turn around when certain ideas become unpopular or he needs to cater to a particularly powerful constituency. Most of the time, that constituency comes from the party, not the public.

As a Hiroshima politician, Mr. Kishida has opposed nuclear weapons and has taken more moderate positions on foreign policy. But as a candidate for prime minister, he stepped up his tough views on China and defended the restart of nuclear power plants, the vast majority of which have been idle since last year. triple fusion on Fukushima 10 years ago. Support for nuclear energy is a key issue on the agenda of the right wing of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Because Kishida won the prime ministerial election backed by lawmakers “more geared toward accommodating organized interests and big business,” he now has to reward them, said Megumi Naoi, associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

Regarding his proposals on economic inequality, Ms Naoi said she couldn’t say how sincere she had been in the first place. “I don’t know how much of this is your belief,” he said, “or just a campaign strategy or a political survival strategy.”

Ben dooley and Hikari hida contributed to reporting.

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