Six Years in Office: What is Next for Abe Shinzō and His Government?

Who Will Succeed Prime Minister Abe? Introducing the Candidates

A veteran political reporter offers incisive profiles of the politicians considered most likely to succeed Abe Shinzō as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and prime minister of Japan.

As Prime Minister Abe Shinzō navigates his third and presumably final term as president of the powerful Liberal Democratic Party, speculation about possible successors has already begun. The lineup of potential candidates for the next LDP president and presumptive prime minister, introduced below, gives evidence of both continuity and remarkable change within the LDP.

“Rockstar” Koizumi Shinjirō

From the 1960s right up through the 1980s, during the heyday of LDP factional politics, virtually every serious candidate for party leadership was a political boss—the leader of a cohesive and numerically significant LDP faction. This was only natural, inasmuch as the generally recognized purpose of the factions was getting their respective leaders elected to the top party post (thus guaranteeing them the position of prime minister).

Today, however, one of the most frequently cited candidates for party leadership is 37-year-old Koizumi Shinjirō, a mere stripling by traditional LDP standards. Koizumi is a House of Representatives member in his fourth term, with no cabinet experience and no faction behind him. Yet in recent opinion polls, respondents have placed him up alongside former LDP Secretary General Ishiba Shigeru as the most suitable successor to Abe as prime minister.

What Koizumi lacks in seniority, some might argue, he makes up for in pedigree. His father is former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichirō, who remained in office more than five and a half years (2001–6), thanks to an unusually high public approval rating. His grandfather, Koizumi Jun’ya, served as director general of the Japan Defense Agency in the 1960s, and his great grandfather, Koizumi Matajirō, was a communications minister (known for his colorful speeches and dragon tattoo) before World War II. In this sense, Koizumi certainly fits the profile of a “hereditary” LDP politician. But more than his background, it is his mediagenic good looks, public-speaking skills, and memorable sound bites that have propelled him into the national spotlight at so young an age.

This is not to suggest that the young Koizumi lacks substance. As director of the agriculture division of the LDP Policy Research Council, he has helped spearhead bold reforms, including measures to curtail the influence of the Japan Agriculture Group over the farming industry and government policy. As de facto leader of a group of young LDP lawmakers dedicated to social security reform and fiscal rehabilitation, he has called for free daycare and early-childhood education through a system of “children’s insurance,” paid for by contributions from employers and workers.

Unlike his father, a maverick who used political theater to secure popular support for policies opposed by the establishment, Shinjirō is a consensus builder who works within the system. This measured, cautious approach comes through in his political behavior as well. Although Koizumi voted for Ishiba Shigeru and against Abe in the September 2018 LDP leadership election, he declined to reveal his choice to the media until shortly before the votes were counted, explaining that he wanted to minimize his influence on other party voters. Some criticized that timing, arguing that Koizumi should have displayed the courage of his convictions. But in the end, the intense media scrutiny only highlighted his bright prospects within the ruling party.

Political Heavyweight Ishiba Shigeru

A more traditional candidate is 61-year-old Ishiba Shigeru (eleventh-term lower house member). Ishiba is the leader of his own faction, albeit a small one (numbering just 20 members) and has held several cabinet posts. Stressing his policy experience and expertise in national security, having led the Defense Agency and later the Ministry of Defense, Ishiba is calling for a wholesale revision of the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9.

Ishiba’s cabinet experience—he has also headed the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries and served as minister for regional revitalization—and his previous appointment as LDP secretary-general qualify him as a political heavyweight in the traditional mold. As leader of the Suigetsukai faction, he challenged Abe’s bid for a third term as party president last September. Among Diet members (whose votes carry the most weight), he received just 18% of the vote, but outside the Diet he made impressive inroads, garnering almost 45% of the votes cast by rank-and-file party members.

Still, Ishiba’s prospects in the next party election in 2021 are not as bright as his long résumé and high profile might suggest. For one thing, he will face competition from such heavy hitters as former Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio, currently head of the LDP’s Policy Research Council (see below). For another, he is likely to encounter organized resistance from Abe’s Seiwakai, the LDP’s largest faction, as well as from Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide, who wields considerable influence among the LDP’s younger politicians.

Kishida Fumio’s Dilemma

Another faction leader, but one who has avoided conflict with Abe, is 61-year-old Kishida Fumio (ninth-term lower house member), currently chairman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council. Kishida’s faction claims direct descent from the venerable Kōchikai, whence sprang many of Japan’s mainstream conservative leaders.

Kishida, who served from 2012 to 2017 as Abe’s minister for foreign affairs—notwithstanding marked ideological and policy differences with the prime minister—was once viewed as Abe’s chief rival for party leadership. However, he excused himself from the running in 2015 and then again in 2018, though many in his faction felt the time was ripe to mount a challenge. Kishida’s belated announcement in support of Abe’s bid for a third term raised questions about his political savvy.

Kishida Fumio, chair of the LDP Policy Research Council, at a meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee in November 2018. (© Jiji)
Kishida Fumio, chair of the LDP Policy Research Council, at a meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee in November 2018. (© Jiji)

While waiting patiently in the wings, Kishida has steadily lost political influence and momentum; in recent opinion polls he has slipped below both Koizumi and Ishiba as the LDP politician deemed best suited to take over the top spot. Moreover, looking ahead to 2021, it is unclear whether he would run as Abe’s anointed successor or take an independent stance and lose the support of Abe’s powerful faction. Even members of his own faction have voiced concerns about his election strategy.

Possible Anointees: Katō and Kōno

Meanwhile, the field has widened amid speculation that Abe may opt to anoint either 63-year-old Katō Katsunobu, chair of the LDP General Council (sixth-term House of Representatives member) or 56-year-old Foreign Minister Kōno Tarō (eighth term) as his successor. Although affiliated with the Keiseikai faction led by Takeshita Wataru, Katō is more aptly viewed as a member of Abe’s inner circle. A close confidant and longtime supporter, he remained steadfastly loyal even after Abe stepped down as prime minister in 2007. After Abe led the LDP back to power in 2012, Katō was awarded a succession of cabinet posts—deputy chief cabinet secretary, minister for promoting dynamic engagement of all citizens, and minister of health, labor, and welfare—before being appointed chair of the LDP General Council.

Kōno Tarō belongs to the Shikōkai faction led by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Asō Tarō, a staunch Abe ally. Asō, who served as prime minister himself (2008–9), was formerly a key member of the Taiyūkai faction led by Kōno’s father, Yōhei, who served as foreign minister, LDP president, and speaker of the House of Representatives. Kōno the younger was long regarded as a maverick with limited prospects in the LDP owing to his blunt manner and outspoken views, but in 2015 he joined the Abe cabinet as chair of the National Public Safety Commission, and in 2017—benefiting from the backing of Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga—he was tapped as foreign minister.

Either Kōno and Katō could emerge as a strong candidate if anointed as Abe’s preferred successor, but neither has the power base needed to win a party election without the Abe camp’s whole-hearted support.

Katō Katsunobu, chair of the LDP General Council, at the entrance to the Prime Minister’s Residence in November 2018. (© Jiji)
Katō Katsunobu, chair of the LDP General Council, at the entrance to the Prime Minister’s Residence in November 2018. (© Jiji)

Wildcards Motegi and Noda

Another candidate who defies LDP stereotypes is 58-year-old Noda Seiko (ninth-term lower house member), former chair of the LDP General Council. Appointed minister of posts and telecommunications at the young age of 37, she is often mentioned as a likely candidate to become Japan’s first woman prime minister. She has previously steered clear of factional politics, but her lack of a strong base within the LDP doomed her previous two bids for the party’s top post. In 2015 and again in 2018, she announced plans to challenge Abe, arguing the need for open debate on the issues, but on both occasions she was forced to abandon her long-shot bid after failing to win the required endorsement of 20 LDP Diet members. Chastened by experience, she has since set about building a faction of her own.

While the foregoing lineup of potential candidates is notable for its diversity, it also illustrates the dominant position of hereditary politicians in the LDP. Every one of the possible successors introduced to this point followed a father, grandfather, or father-in-law into politics. Koizumi and Kōno are perhaps the best-known political bluebloods, with distinguished pedigrees going back several generations, but the others fit the pattern as well.

Ishiba’s father served as governor of Tottori Prefecture and minister of home affairs. Kishida is a third-generation member of the House of Representatives. Katō’s father-in-law was minister of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. And Noda is the granddaughter of a former construction minister. Whether one starts out in business or public life (as a civil servant or political aide), having an established politician in the family confers a huge electoral advantage in terms of name recognition, local support base, and financial resources. As a result, the majority of LDP’s top-ranking politicians, and most of its rising stars as well, are second- or third-generation lawmakers.

One notable exception is 63-year-old Motegi Toshimitsu (ninth-term lower house member), currently serving in Abe’s cabinet as minister for economic revitalization. After completing his master’s degree in public policy at Harvard, Motegi worked for trading company Marubeni, the daily Yomiuri Shimbun, and the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. before winning election to the Diet in 1993 as a member of the Japan New Party. He joined the LDP in 1995, after the JNP’s dissolution, and has earned his current cabinet position through sheer talent and hard work, demonstrating expertise in foreign and domestic policy and a knack for getting things done.

The big question is whether Motegi can jockey for position within the Keiseikai faction, which also includes Abe confidant Katō Katsunobu and former Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Obuchi Yūko (daughter of former Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō), who has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.

Foreign Minister Kōno Tarō (right) and Minister for Economic Revitalization Motegi Toshimitsu at a plenary session of the House of Representatives in November 2018. (© Jiji)
Foreign Minister Kōno Tarō (right) and Minister for Economic Revitalization Motegi Toshimitsu at a plenary session of the House of Representatives in November 2018. (© Jiji)

Finally, 69-year-old Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide (eighth-term lower house member) has attracted growing interest as a possible contender—despite repeated denials by Suga himself. Born on a farm in Akita Prefecture, Suga worked his way through Hōsei University in Tokyo, worked as a secretary to a Diet member and a cabinet minister, and served in the Yokohama City Council before winning election to the Diet in 1996. A master of crisis management and policy negotiations, he mentors a group of about 40 young Diet politicians. Although Suga has consistently ruled out a bid for the top LDP post, the pundits are not prepared to count him out just yet.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: LDP rockstar Koizumi is besieged by reporters in the wake of the September 2018 LDP leadership election, in which he was not a candidate. © Jiji.)

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