Japanese leader tries to honor Abe's legacy while building his own

TOKYO — Fumio Kishida has spent years trying to emerge from the shadow of Shinzo Abe the former prime minister of Japan who was shot dea...


TOKYO — Fumio Kishida has spent years trying to emerge from the shadow of Shinzo Abethe former prime minister of Japan who was shot dead during an election rally on July 8.

Since the two were elected in 1993 to the Diet, as the Japanese parliament is called, Mr Abe had been the most prominent politician. A charismatic presence, he eclipsed Mr. Kishida, a pillar of the party which can be so steep that a schoolgirl recently asked her about the last time he actually laughed. (His answer: whenever his beloved baseball team, Hiroshima Toyo Carp, wins.)

After Mr Kishida finally – on the second try – gained access to the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr Abe continued to harass him from behind the scenes. He floated controversial ideas, such as a proposal that Japan would host US nuclear weapons, and warned that financial markets could see Mr Kishida’s economic policies as “socialist” and react badly to them.

Now, after the assassination, Mr Kishida, 64, is trying to honor Mr Abe while proving he can stand apart from the legacy of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.

“A few years ago, Kishida was almost seen as the one who had no chance of becoming prime minister,” said Mikitaka Masuyama, professor of political science at the National Institute of Policy Studies in Tokyo. Now, he said, “we have to determine whether Kishida really has the capacity and the leadership qualities to run the government and control” his Liberal Democratic Party.

The question facing Mr. Kishida is how he will spend his political capital, bolstered by a victory in the elections to the Upper House of Parliament a week ago. The Prime Minister had already indicated that he would act to enact the objectives most dear to Mr Abe, including a revision of the pacifist clause in the Constitution renouncing the war, as well as an increase in defense spending.

Last week, Mr Kishida was quick to say he would address the “difficult issues” into which Mr Abe had “poured his passion” but “could not accomplish”. He promised to “significantly improve Japan’s defense capabilities within five years”.

As much as Mr. Abe’s death, geopolitical circumstances will dictate Mr. Kishida’s choices. The war in Ukraine and the growing military threats from China and North Korea prompted Mr Kishida, who had previously presented himself as a liberal-leaning Dovish member of the Liberal Democrats, to take on a more hawkish role.

Given regional pressures, “increased defense spending is no longer optional for Tokyo,” said Titli Basu, a research associate at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi.

Most Japanese recognize these threats: in the polls, a majority supports increasing the defense budget. And while the public once vehemently opposed revising the pacifist Constitution, polls in the spring indicated that a majority would now consider it.

Mr. Kishida “says things that in the past would have been politically divisive,” said Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan. “There is a consensus that is partly to his credit, and partly to events.”

In the nine months since the party chose Mr Kishida as prime minister, it has steadily extended the tireless diplomacy that has characterized Mr Abe’s rule.

It has also discreetly differentiated itself from its predecessor.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Mr. Kishida strongly condemned Russia’s actions without hesitation and quickly enacted sanctions. Eight years earlier, Mr. Abe, keen to forge a relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin, dragged his feet to impose sanctions after Russia annexed Crimea.

Like Mr. Abe, Mr. Kishida came to politics as the son and grandson of MPs.

As young lawmakers who joined the lower house in the same year, Mr. Kishida and Mr. Abe sometimes worked in pairs. Shinobu Konno, a political commentator, recently recalled on ANN News, a Japanese television channel, that the two men went to Taiwan on a diplomatic mission in 1997, with Mr. Abe leading the group and Mr. Kishida as deputy. .

“Mr. Kishida was a heavy drinker but an annoying talker,” Mr. Konno said. “And Mr. Abe was a good talker but not a heavy drinker, so they shared the responsibilities. and competed with the strongest Taiwanese drinkers, while Mr. Abe was in charge of talking and getting everyone excited.

During Mr. Abe’s brief first term as Prime Minister from 2006 to 2007, Mr. Kishida served as Minister of State for Okinawa Affairs and the Northern Territories. After Mr Abe returned to power in 2012, he appointed his old friend foreign minister, a post Mr Kishida would hold longer than anyone in Japan’s post-World War II history.

But when Mr Abe stepped down in 2020, he threw his weight behind another man, Yoshihide Suga, to succeed him. Mr. Suga beat Mr. Kishida by a nearly four-to-one party vote.

Mr. Kishida began by trying to distinguish himself from Mr. Abe, proposing a “new capitalism” that broke away from Mr. Abe’s well-known economic platform, dubbed “Abenomics”. Mr Kishida said he wanted to reduce income inequality and proposed raising some taxes.

He has since echoed that rhetoric and he has appeared to embrace Mr Abe’s calls to double defense spending and change the Constitution.

Still, analysts see glimmers of Mr Kishida trying to be his own man.

In delivering the keynote address last month at a security forum hosted by singaporehe noted that Germany had announced that it would increase its defense budget to 2% of its annual economic output – a goal that Mr. Abe had sought for Japan. But Mr. Kishida did not cite a quantified target, promising instead a “substantial increase”. Moreover, he said that Japan “will act within the framework of our Constitution”.

Yuki Tatsumi, director of the Japan program at the Stimson Center in Washington, said she saw Mr Kishida as “pushing off some of the things Abe was pushing on him in the court of public opinion”.

As late as Thursday, Mr Kishida, referring to defense spending, said “we need to be realistic and concrete in our discussions, but at the same time not be numbers driven”.

Economic reality can undermine the possibility of setting drastic goals. With rising inflation, the depreciation of the yenwith coronavirus infections rising and, in the longer term, an aging population and falling birth rate, Mr Kishida may find he doesn’t have the money to pay for all of the government’s priorities.

The traditional pace of change in Japan may be on Mr. Kishida’s side. Consensus-building is valued and incremental progress – rather than radical transformation – is the norm.

“It’s been a slow evolution over time where North Korea’s and China’s growing reduction in Japanese security has made the public and politicians aware that there’s still a lot to do,” Jeffrey said. Hornung, senior political scientist at RAND. Company specializing in Japanese security and foreign policy. “As long as Kishida keeps going slow and steady, I think he’ll be fine.”

Makiko Inoue contributed report.



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Newsrust - US Top News: Japanese leader tries to honor Abe's legacy while building his own
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