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On September 29th, after a tumultuous election cycle within Japan’s ruling political party, Japanese politicians went ahead and selected their 100th prime minister. But before we get into the details and the lead-up to this event, taking a look at the way prime ministers in Japan are elected is necessary.

How Do Elections in Japan Work?

For starters, Japan runs on a parliamentary system, meaning that its political structure resembles more  of the United Kingdom than the United States. Likeso, Japan has no president and only a prime minister. Prime ministers are voted on by politicians and the people do not have direct voting rights to elect their prime ministers and instead, they vote for the party that will be in power. This position has been held by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for some time now, pretty much ensuring that the prime minister will come out of this party.

The Contenders

This election cycle, there were two men and two women candidates, totaling out to four contenders. Although the gender balance was applauded as it is rather rare to see in the Japanese political scene and is also the first time multiple women (albeit, two) ran in an election for the premiership, it became clear very quickly that the race was really just between the two men. The first to announce his campaign was now-Prime Minister Kishida, so perhaps the early bird does indeed get the worm. He had run in the previous election as well but lost to former PM Suga and was determined even then to run again. Kishida, in a rather surprising turn of events, took to social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter to promote his campaign, knowing that the people cannot vote for the election he is campaigning for. His emphasis for this was to address an issue that was brought up multiple times in the previous administration: a lack of transparency and communication. Although some found scenes of Kishida hopping onto Instagram live and doing a compatibility game with his wife and his son as host to be out of place purely due to its unprecedented nature, the effort was there.

The male leading counterpart was Taro Kono, the then-Vaccine Minister, a position that entered the scene amid COVID-19. Popular among the people and youth for being tech-savvy and active on social media despite being 58 years of age, unfortunately for him becoming the people’s favorite did not play into his favor as being liked by the people does not equate to being liked by his fellow LDP colleagues. Being the only one holding a ministerial position during the time of the election, many thought that he could come out victorious given his presence within the politics of the time, but that seems to have been a dull miscalculation. Along with his presence on social media, he is also very keen on tackling the out-dated ways of the administration such as faxing and using stamps as signatures and even went so far as to call out the bureaucratic formalities that comes with a cabinet resigning in front of the cameras. In hindsight, among the many faults that may have hindered his campaign are his unpopularity among his peers for being ‘too progressive’ and the sluggish vaccine program during its early launch that may have worked against him. On top of all this, being in the then-administration, it was a given that he would proceed with many of the currently implemented policies, and as much as the Japanese seek stability, change, albeit in moderation, is occasionally warranted.

Sanae Takaichi, 60, is known for being pro-Shinzo Abe, the prime minister before the last, and has very strong opinions such as opposing war reparations and being against maternal ascendancy of the throne. She also opposed allowing married couples to have different last names, a topic that has been hugely controversial these past couple years. Among all of her rather polarizing opinions, she has largely been criticized for visiting Yasukuni shrine, a symbol viewed as tied to Japan’s imperial past by most of its continental neighbors. 

Seiko Noda, 61, was a last minute entry, as she struggled to collect enough support among her peers to meet the threshold required to run. Noda is known for emphasizing women’s rights in her policies, having had prior experience as a minister for women’s empowerment. 

D-Day

The day of the election placed many on their toes, although once the run off recount was announced, it was clear who would win in the end. The election morning began with LDP members casting their votes one-by-one on a live television broadcast and the result came out as Kishida, 256 votes, Kono, 255 votes, Takaichi, 188 votes, and Noda, 63 votes. However,since none of the candidates obtained a majority, obvious with the single vote difference between the predicted top two candidates, a runoff was announced for Kishida and Kono. Given these two candidates, most of the Takaichi and Noda votes went to Kishida, earning him 257 votes to Kono’s 170 votes in the runoff, paving him a clear path to the premiership. 

Profile: Fumio Kishida

Fumio Kishida, 64, is a former foreign minister representing the 1st district of Hiroshima. A Waseda University alumni, he’s been around in the political scene for a while now given that he comes from a string of political family members, as tends to be the background story for most Japanese politicians, or perhaps politicians universally. Peers describe him to be a very serious character teetering on ‘uptight’, but also praises him for his incredible listening skills, something that is perhaps vital now more than ever as the pandemic disheartens a great many Japanese people. Kishida’s ‘Kishida Note’, dubbed by himself, may be the most palpable testament to this. First brought up when he announced his bid for the premiership, PM Kishida has waved around a small navy notebook during his campaign, saying that he jots down the people’s voices in the pages, including criticisms. 

All The Prime Minister’s Men (And Three Women)

The PM Cabinet consists of 21 ministerial positions, and for the Kishida cabinet, the elephant in the room is the 13 fresh faces. It’s quite the move to bring on so many new people to the spotlight especially amid a pandemic when stability is the safer choice, but it also does make sense given Kishida’s intent to clear out most familiar faces to distance himself as much as possible from the former administration. In fact, only 2 positions remained unchanged from the Suga administration: Toshimitsu Motegi as Foreign Minister and Nobuo Kishi as Defense Minister, the latter which must’ve been a tough call taking into account the familial ties that Kishi has with PM Abe, being his younger brother. Among a group of people with the oldest member being 77 years old, two cabinet members in their 40s stand out, that being Karen Makishima, 44, and Takayuki Kobayashi, 46. Young faces are rare in the Japanese political scene so this was a positive direction for the political scene as youth political activism remains stagnantly low. Makishima has also been given the Digital Minister position, so things are looking hopeful for a young woman to be in that position, perhaps as opposed to Takuya Hirai, 63, of the Suga administration. Lastly, it is worth noting that among Kishida’s fellow candidates, only one was invited on board, that being Seiko Noda. Her along with Makishima as well as Noriko Horiuchi (Vaccine and Olympics Minister), totalling to three women in this cabinet, is one more additional woman compared to the previous cabinet. Progress is indeed brought by small victories. 

The Curse That Looms Over the Premiership

As aforementioned, Kishida is Japan’s 100th Prime Minister. We’ve officially entered three digits, folks. This is what we refer to as: revolving door politics. Essentially, similar to a revolving door that just keeps on turning with people going in and out, Japan has been known to have prime ministers that don’t last very long due to several reasons, a big one being plummeting approval ratings caused by scandals. This constant and incessant churning in and out of new prime ministers doesn’t reflect well on the global stage, either. Due to Japan being prone to this revolving door politics style, it translates to ‘instability’ to other heads of states and that’s not too good for reputation. His predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, was only in office for a year, however we do need to cut him some slack on that one due to Abe’s unexpected resignation caused by health problems, in which Suga took over just to finish off Abe’s final year. Perhaps doing a full term was never on Suga’s mind. Hopefully Kishida doesn’t get ousted out of the blue either, but things are already looking gloomy as Kishida is scoring lower in approval ratings compared to Suga when he first entered office, especially taking into account the ‘honeymoon period’ that PMs are usually granted by default from the ever-so-generous public.

What’s Next?

PM Kishida is shouldering quite a lot of responsibilities if being prime minister wasn’t enough already. Of course the most urgent matter is COVID-19 as the State of Emergency in several regions in Japan was lifted just in time for his first day in office, while cases have significantly decreased with the height of the summer seemingly in the past now. With that said it seems that Suga took the heaviest hit with the surge of the pandemic and now Kishida has been left with the aftermath, the post-COVID strategy. Not to suggest that the pandemic is in any way over, but as more and more becomes known about the virus and the vaccines, it is now Kishida’s responsibility to segway that into effective and lasting post-pandemic policy. His first step here will be crucial to how the rest of his COVID response unfolds.

The People Take to the Polls: October 31st 

In an announcement far earlier than experts and analysts predicted, the upcoming general election has been set for October 31st. For those that are eligible, cast your votes and make your voices heard to welcome this new administration.

Sarah Aoyagi

Waseda '22

Sarah is a 4th year undergrad majoring in Political Science and minoring in Journalism. Born and raised in LA, her interests span from belting Queen to binging Netflix documentaries.
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