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Viewpoint: How Abe still casts a shadow over Kishida in Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.


Former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe was tragically gunned down one year ago. Yet he still casts a long shadow on Japanese politics and the agenda of current PM Fumio Kishida.

Last year, Kishida’s public approval ratings nosedived mainly because of controversies related to Abe, like the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s ties to the Unification Church (or “Moonies”). Those ties go back decades to former PM Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s grandfather. Since then, Kishida has regained his political footing. But when it comes to Japan’s national security, foreign affairs, and economic policies, Kishida still walks in Abe’s shadow. Or does he?

To get an idea of how this is all playing out, especially as Kishida mulls calling snap elections later this year, we sat down for a chat with David Boling, Eurasia Group’s lead Japan analyst.

What is Abe's main legacy on Japanese politics a year after his death?

He continues to exert outsized influence over day-to-day politics and policymaking.

At the time of his death, Abe was head of the largest faction, which now has 100 members, within the conservative LDP. That’s nearly double the size of the next largest faction. The caucus still bears his name, the “Abe faction,” and he remains the glue that holds them together. Even though a year has passed, they still can’t agree on a new standard bearer.

On policy, his vision outlives him too. Abe was a very controversial and provocative politician. He was edgy and relished a good fight. This made him unpopular and is the reason why most Japanese people opposed a state funeral for him — to the dismay of many foreign observers. But his policy vision transcends all that rancor. It might even be called mainstream now.

So as William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

What would Abe think of Kishida’s performance so far?

Abe would be happy to see that Kishida has supported increased defense spending, which is set to reach 2% of GDP by 2027. But he would question Kishida’s leadership abilities and not consider him conservative enough.

It’s worth remembering that before Abe was gunned down, he was positioning himself to make yet another run for prime minister. So Kishida certainly saw Abe as a political rival – you might even say they were “frenemies.” They were both LDP members and somewhat dependent on each other – Kishida had served nearly five years as Abe’s foreign minister. But they were suspicious of one another.

How has Kishida shaken off the controversy over the Moonies in the wake of Abe’s shooting?

Kishida took a huge beating in the polls last fall over the Unification Church scandal, even though Kishida himself had no personal connection to the church. It was Abe, members of his faction, and other LDP members who were chummy with the Moonies.

The controversy over LDP ties with the Moonies burned very hot but then fizzled out. In December, Kishida helped push through legislation to crack down on fundraising abuses by religious organizations. Since then, though, the issue has completely dropped out of opinion polling.

How has Kishida followed Abe’s playbook, and where has he distanced himself from his old boss?

Although he has sought to distance himself from “Abenomics” with his “new form of capitalism,” Kishida has stuck to Abe’s economic blueprint of big fiscal spending and ultra-loose monetary policy. That’s been a surprise.

On defense, Abe was a hawk. Kishida is a dove who has been mugged by the reality of China, North Korea, and Russia. So Kishida has become a supporter of spending more money on defense. He wants to raise taxes to pay for some of that increase, whereas Abe was fine just to pay for it with new debt.

Finally, the Japanese public sees amending the constitution to clarify the status of the self-defense forces as a low priority – as does Kishida – while it was a top priority for Abe.

How popular is Kishida today, and how much of a change/mandate is that for him moving forward?

Kishida’s popularity has been like a roller coaster. It was up at the beginning of his tenure. But it went down in the second half of last year to its lowest point. Then up from the beginning of this year through the G7 summit in Hiroshima. Now it’s heading down again.

Kishida is not as threatening as Abe, but his popular support does not run as deep either. The Japanese public has a “meh” attitude towards him. There’s a good chance he’ll dissolve the lower house and hold snap elections later this year, and those results will determine how much Kishida can do in the coming months.


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