Kishida Finding His Inner Machiavelli? Behind the Latest Cabinet Shakeup


Undeterred by perilously low approval ratings, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio seems determined to hang onto power, writes veteran political reporter Koga Kō in his commentary on last September’s puzzling cabinet shakeup.

On October 4, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio passed the two-year mark as Japan’s top political leader. This is by no means a long tenure, but it already exceeds that of seven of Kishida’s eight predecessors. In view of the cabinet’s low approval ratings and Kishida’s “nice guy” reputation, one might expect him to hand over the reins without a fight, but there are growing signs—including the latest cabinet reshuffle—of his determination to hold onto power and join the ranks of such long-serving and well-remembered prime ministers as Koizumi Jun’ichirō (2001–6) and the late Abe Shinzō (2012–20).

Three More Years?

Perhaps the most explicit expression of those ambitions was Kishida’s statement at a meeting of his new cabinet on September 26, when the prime minister instructed his government to compile an economic policy package aimed at transitioning Japan to a new growth phase. Even before a timetable for the package had been drawn up, Kishida was calling for “intensive efforts targeting the next three years as a period of change.”

An earlier indication of Kishida’s mindset was the cabinet reshuffle of September 13, which seemed to have little purpose beyond firming up support within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and boosting the government’s sagging approval ratings.

At the press conference announcing the new lineup, Kishida quoted the slogan “building a nation that promises a better tomorrow,” coined by Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato (1960–64)—founder of the faction now led by Kishida and a key figure in the postwar Japanese miracle. “With this sort of nation building in mind, I have continued to appoint cabinet members with an outstanding ability to get things done, focusing on the key policy areas of economy, society, and foreign policy and security.”

Of course, one would hardly expect him to say, “I’ve made some cosmetic changes to jack up the cabinet’s poor approval ratings” (currently hovering at around 30%). Even so, it is difficult to reconcile the words “outstanding ability to get things done” with the new faces in Kishida’s cabinet.

Sacrificing the Foreign Minister

In the key area of foreign policy and security, Kishida installed Kamikawa Yōko, a member of his own faction, as minister for foreign affairs in place of Hayashi Yoshimasa, also of the Kishida faction, and he tapped of Kihara Minoru of the Motegi faction as minister of defense, replacing the independent Hamada Yasukazu. As members of the National Security Council, the foreign and defense ministers both have privileged access to highly sensitive information.

Hayashi’s replacement by Kamikawa was particularly surprising. Kamikawa has no previous experience in any diplomatic post, either in the government or in the ruling party, and she is replacing Hayashi as the nation’s top diplomat at a critical juncture. Japan will continue to hold the presidency of the Group of Seven until the end of the year, and with the war in Ukraine raging, it could be called on to lead a G7 conference at any time. Hayashi himself visited Ukraine on September 9 and was in the thick of preparations for another G7 foreign ministers’ conference scheduled for November.

To be sure, Kamikawa is a veteran politician with a reputation for competence among her colleagues. After graduating from the University of Tokyo, she took a position at Mitsubishi Research Institute, earned her master’s degree from Harvard University, and worked as a legislative aide to US Senator Max Baucus before entering Japanese politics. She was elected to the Diet in 2000. She secured her first cabinet post in 2007 as a minister of state for special missions (declining birthrate, gender equality) under the first Abe cabinet and subsequently served as minister in charge of public records management under Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo. However, Kamikawa is best known for her tenure as minister of justice (from 2014) under the second Abe cabinet, when she presided over the execution of 13 former members of the Aum Shinrikyō cult, responsible for the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack.

All of that said, there was no compelling reason to replace Hayashi, who has performed reliably, with the inexperienced Kamikawa, even while retaining Nishimura Yasutoshi as minister of economy, trade, and industry and Takaichi Sanae as minister for economic security. Hayashi must have found the decision hard to swallow.

Some have speculated that Hayashi incurred Kishida’s displeasure by traveling to Ukraine in the company of Rakuten Group Chief Executive Officer Mikitani Hiroshi, who has voiced criticism of Kishida’s “new capitalism.” But surely the real reason lies elsewhere. The most convincing explanation is that Kishida sought to burnish his public image by installing a woman foreign minister for the first time in 19 years, thereby tying the Japanese record for the number of women in one cabinet (five). This would also explain why Takaichi was retained even after she publicly challenged Kishida’s position on funding the defense-budget increase.

Seizing the Diplomatic Reins

At the abovementioned press conference, a reporter asked Kishida why he had found it necessary to replace his foreign minister, a post in which continuity is considered a major asset. Kishida offered a rather extraordinary justification, saying, “Ministers have an important part to play, but summit diplomacy is a big component as well. I myself intend to play a major role in such summit diplomacy.”

One diplomatic official confessed his amazement. “It’s like saying, ‘It doesn’t matter who the foreign minister is because I’m going to handle diplomacy myself.’ I was surprised to hear him come right out and say that.”

Kishida’s feelings on the subject may be a product of his trials as foreign minister under Prime Minister Abe. Although Kishida had the longest uninterrupted tenure of any Japanese foreign minister, the media spotlight was almost always on “Abe diplomacy.” On the other hand, it was the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers who announced the December 2015 agreement on the comfort women issue, and Japan’s rightwing nationalists directed their wrath squarely at Kishida. Yet Abe himself once told me that Kishida had played almost no part in crafting the agreement; the Prime Minister’s Office had basically taken charge of the matter.

One gets the feeling that Kishida may be pursuing a style of top-down diplomacy similar to Abe’s to compensate for the frustrations he experienced as a powerless foreign minister.

A Taste for Power

Kishida has long been viewed as a consensus-building, accommodating centrist, presenting a stark contrast to the often domineering, uncompromising leadership style of Abe and his immediate successor, Suga Yoshihide. Even now, Kishida maintains the public image of an earnest, self-effacing “nice guy.” But he has built up a good deal of self-assurance in the process of dealing with such crises as the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine and has shown a surprising eagerness to tackle politically risky issues. The new cabinet’s oft-repeated commitment to “confront challenges that can no longer be put off” strikes me as an expression of Kishida’s own political adrenaline high.

A TV talk show commentator recently joked about Kishida’s remarkable talent for being uninteresting, noting that the prime minister had quietly implemented policies that would ordinarily trigger huge protests, such as doubling the defense budget and restarting the nation’s nuclear reactors. One does get the sense that Kishida’s bland, nice-guy persona reduces some of the friction that inevitably accompanies policy making.

But beneath the prime minister’s mild-mannered exterior is a calculating politician with a growing taste for power. The underlying purpose of September’s cabinet shakeup was to position Kishida for a second term as leader of the LDP and thus an extended tenure as prime minister. While it is true that the new lineup features 11 first-time cabinet members (out of 19 posts), the majority of those are elderly members of rival factions, old-timers with a history of being passed over. These perennial waitlisters are hardly conspicuous for their “ability to get things done.” It is all too clear that Kishida tapped them at the request of their faction leaders, whose support he will need in next fall’s LDP presidential election.

Fertile Soil for Speculation

The other key objective of the cabinet reshuffle, as suggested above, was to enhance Kishida’s public image and give his dismal approval ratings a boost. After all, to secure reelection as party president and continue as prime minister, Kishida needs to lead the LDP to victory in a House of Representatives election. Unfortunately, the anticipated bump was not forthcoming, according to opinion polls conducted immediately after the shakeup. If an election were held tomorrow, the LDP would most likely lose seats, placing Kishida under pressure to step down.

One LDP politician I spoke to went so far as to speculate that Kishida’s appointment of Kamikawa was a hedge against such an eventuality. He suggested that in appointing Kamikawa foreign minister, Kishida is setting her up to become his successor and Japan’s first woman prime minister—with Kishida pulling the strings as the power behind the throne.

It is an intriguing theory, but utterly implausible. The odds of a woman taking control of the LDP—a bastion of male supremacy—in the foreseeable future are vanishingly small. Still, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Ultimately, the fuel that feeds such rumors is a growing perception within the ruling party that Kishida Fumio will do whatever it takes to hang onto political power.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Prime Minister Kishida Fumio announces his new cabinet lineup at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence, September 13, 2023. © Jiji.)

LDP cabinet reshuffle Kishida Fumio