Kishida’s Realism and the LDP’s Factional Crisis

Politics World Economy Society

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has often talked of “realism,” especially when pursuing policies that go against the liberal image of his Kōchikai faction. Now the announced disbandment of major Liberal Democratic Party factions offers a new opportunity for change for his beleaguered cabinet.

A Liberal Reputation

In January 2024, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio responded to the growing scandal over kickbacks related to faction fundraising parties in the Liberal Democratic Party by deciding to disband the Kōchikai faction that he himself headed. This brought the curtain down on the history of the oldest major LDP faction, founded in 1957 by Ikeda Hayato.

Kōchikai has a generally liberal reputation. Its founder Ikeda changed his political views based on his experience of the 1960 Anpo protests against the Japan-US security treaty. Known for his promise to double Japanese incomes, after becoming prime minister in 1960 Ikeda instituted policies to supercharge the high level of economic growth that had already begun in the late 1950s. Avoiding direct engagement with the issues that had brought about an ideological split between left and right, he aimed to reunite public opinion through economic centrism.

His success in this task is etched in the DNA of Kōchikai. After Ikeda’s death, the faction leaders adhered to the Yoshida Doctrine of limiting defense forces and focusing efforts on the economy, as espoused by Yoshida Shigeru, who led Japan shortly after World War II. This set it apart from the Seiwakai faction—also known recently as the Abe faction, after the late Abe Shinzō who headed it until his death—which has favored constitutional revision and stronger security ties with the United States.

Kishida is the fifth prime minister from Kōchikai. Shortly after coming to power, he drew on the faction’s tradition, taking a flexible line, and claiming an “ability to listen.” He seems to have wanted to show a difference between himself and his predecessors in the premiership, Abe and Suga Yoshihide, who pushed policies forward through strong leadership, but were criticized as heavy-handed. His announced policy of creating a virtuous circle of growth and redistribution through a “new capitalism” was strongly influenced by Ikeda’s income-doubling plan.

In his foreign policy, however, Kishida sought to dispel the liberal tendencies of Kōchikai from the start. In his New Year address for 2022, he said he would implement “realism diplomacy for the new era,” based on the three pillars of emphasizing universal values, working to resolve global issues, and protecting the lives and ways of life of citizens.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the following month cemented Kishida’s diplomatic stance. From the outbreak of war, he showed strong support for Ukraine, bolstering economic sanctions against Russia in line with other Western powers. Then, as tensions increased in the Taiwan Strait, he made a series of weighty decisions, including the revision of the National Security Strategy and two other security documents, and significantly boosting defense spending. While the tense international situation was a factor, in short order Kishida achieved a major shift in Japan’s defense policy that would have split public opinion a decade before.

“A Thorough Realism”

Kishida often uses the word “realism” (genjitsu shugi) when justifying policies that differ from Kōchikai’s traditional image. For example, in February 2023, he said of Kōchikai that, “It’s often called a liberal group, but in essence it pursues a thorough realism” (as reported in the Nikkei on February 27, 2023).

Kōchikai politicians have responded to the public’s wishes of the time, implementing policies targeting economic growth and international cooperation that were adapted to the reality of the situation. Kishida seems to see himself as within this tradition, adopting pragmatic policies that meet the needs of the severest security environment since the end of World War II.

It is certainly true that there has been an undercurrent of realistic thinking among former Kōchikai prime ministers. When 1979 saw the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution in January and the start of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, Prime Minister Ōhira Masayoshi reacted by firmly positioning Japan as a “member of the free world.” Previously in the 1970s, the country’s diplomacy had been characterized by its “omnidirectional” nature, expanding diplomatic relations with the Communist Bloc. However, Ōhira did not wish to legitimize Soviet aggression, and strengthened sanctions via the Western Bloc’s Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, while beginning strategic aid for Pakistan, Turkey, and Thailand, as neighbors to conflict zones.

As détente gave way to what was termed a “new Cold War,” it was Ōhira of the “liberal” Kōchikai that reshaped Japanese diplomacy to meet the new international reality, rather than Fukuda Takeo, his predecessor as prime minister, of the more hawkish Seiwakai.

This disconnect between image and reality was recently mirrored in the attitudes toward Russian President Vladimir Putin espoused by Abe Shinzō, who tried to build a trusting relationship with the aim of achieving the return of the Northern Territories, and Kishida, who advocated a firm line against Russia even while serving under Abe as foreign minister. Compared with the Seiwakai prime ministers, who hold to a particular ideology, using it to drive forward policy, one might say that the Kōchikai prime ministers are typified by their flexible adaptation of policy to circumstances.

A Chance for Further Change?

When he talks of realism, one should also remember Kishida’s Machiavellian side, necessary to emerge victorious in intraparty power struggles. Along with its name for liberalism, Kōchikai has also been known for leaders who were among the party’s top policy experts, but were ineffectual in tussles for power, such as Maeo Shigesaburō, Miyazawa Kiichi, and Katō Kōichi.

By contrast, Kishida overcame cutthroat competition to win the LDP leadership election in September 2021 and thereby become prime minister. At the start of his administration, however, Kōchikai was only the fourth largest party faction behind those led by Abe, Asō Tarō, and Motegi Toshimitsu (formerly by Takeshita Wataru, who died earlier in September), making for a fragile power base. This has necessitated respect when implementing diplomatic and security policy for the opinions of Seiwakai, the largest faction, which advocates expanding defense capabilities.

In this sense, the decision to disband Kōchikai meant destroying his own base. Unlike Abe, who was not even leader of Seiwakai when he became prime minister, Kishida has built his career as the “crown prince” of Kōchikai and remained faction leader even while serving in the top job. Having positioned himself within traditional party politics, Kishida has now rejected the faction that provided his legitimacy.

Kishida’s decision caused a major stir, and Seiwakai and other factions also announced their own dissolution. While the Kishida cabinet is currently suffering a slump in support, closing up Kōchikai has led in turn to the loss of rightward pressure from Seiwakai, and it may be an opportunity for the prime minister to put his individual stamp on foreign policy.

Sound political ideology must be supported by both idealism and realism, as realism without idealism ends up only ratifying the status quo. Kishida’s diplomacy has carried on many aspects from the Abe approach, based on a grand strategy to restore the balance of power between Japan and China in the face of the rise of China’s military in the 2010s.

Kishida has been active in making international visits, but what independent diplomatic vision he might have remains unclear. Having completed a shift from the former Kōchikai image, can he make another major evolution? Now is the moment of truth for the Kishida administration.

(Originally published in Japanese on February 16, 2024. Banner photo: Prime Minister Kishida Fumio in the Diet on February 14, 2024. © Jiji.)

LDP Abe Shinzō Kishida Fumio