Government & politics, Public policy, East Asia, Centre for the Study of Global Japan

Event Report: Politics of the Kishida Cabinet in the Post-Abe Era

On November 14th from 8:00pm-9:30pm (EST)/ 9:00am-10:30am (JST) a panel of experts of Japanese politics and foreign relations came together in an event aimed at navigating the “Politics of the Kishida Cabinet in the Post-Abe Era.” This event was graciously co-sponsored by the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the University of Tokyo’s ISS Methodology of Social Sciences Project.

Opening remarks were delivered by Yves Tiberghien, the Director for the Center for Japanese Research at the University of British Columbia, and Phillip Lipscy, Director of the Centre of Study of Global Japan. They noted the political impact the assassination of Abe Shinzo, the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history. Concerns around Abe’s state funeral in conjunction with policies surrounding economic security, immigration, and COVID-19 have been major challenges for the Kishida cabinet. The opening remarks set the stage for the distinguished panelists.

The first panelist was Professor Harukata Takenaka from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo, Japan. Takenaka started the discussion by outlining his opinion that the Kishida Cabinet has great policy potential but finds itself “pushed into a corner” by limitations of political patronage. Takenaka then explained Kishida’s “New Capitalism” concept, with a specific focus on investments for technology centered around bio-technology, AI, and decarbonization. Economic statecraft can be a “powerful tool,” yet Takenaka noted that the Kishida Cabinet faced significant challenges. He observed that the historical pattern of political factions in the LDP meant Kishida’s appointments are “trapped by old seniority rule.”

The second panelist was Professor Kenneth Mori McElwain from the Institute of Social Science, University of Tokyo. McElwain started by stating that the opinion of the Japanese public has moved to a “post-COVID” era, with economic priorities taking center stage. He described how the successful vaccination rollout across the country saved the LDP electorally, with the rollout being tied to Prime Minister competency and thus vote choice. The priority of the Kishida government has now shifted toward “bread and butter” issues like economic growth and improvements in citizen welfare.

The third panelist was Professor Rieko Kage from the University of Tokyo’s Department of Advanced Social and International Studies. Kage centered her analysis around how the Kishida Cabinet understands economic issues through the lens of gender and immigration. Kage began by analyzing statistical figures related to employment levels in Japan, with unprecedented levels of female participation in the labor force being seen in the last decade. However, studies document that there is a rising labor shortage. Kage discussed how allowing for increased immigration to Japan, along with Japanese women working longer hours, are two possible solutions. Changes in immigration policy would have to navigate the public’s documented preference for certain types of immigrants, like high-skilled workers. Policymakers could look to existing agreements like Care Worker legislation for ways to craft policy changes and maintain public support.

The fourth panelist was Professor David Leheny from the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University. Leheny’s discussion revolved around the politics of former prime minister Abe’s state funeral. Media coverage of the funeral was extensive, with video capturing hundreds of thousands of mourners, while there was less coverage of the counter protests that were concurrently happening across the country. Lehney discussed how previous leaders avoided state funerals for prime ministers as it was seen as politically contentious. Divided public opinion was reflective of Abe’s complex legacy. The controversy over Abe’s state funeral became an important challenge and distraction for the Kishida government.

The fifth panelist was Professor Takako Hikotani from Gakushuin University and the Asia Society Policy Institute. Hikotani’s presentation centered around Kishida’s declining popularity, with the state funeral and indecisiveness about policy goals cited as contributing factors. Hikotani noted that Kishida could stand to benefit from hosting the G7 summit in Hiroshima in mid-2023. She also discussed Abe’s legacy and the public perception that he orchestrated important reforms during his tenure, though the constitution was not amended. In the post-Abe era, the policies of Kishida’s cabinet will continue to be placed under a microscope, particularly in regards to increasing defense and military budgets. Hikotani noted that public support for such measures is not guaranteed.

Andrew Horvat, a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Japanese Research at the University of British Columbia and former Tokyo-based correspondent for the Associated Press, served as discussant. Horvat noted the perceived differences in the leadership of Abe and Kishida and how party politics are closely related to difficult decisions Kishida had to make in the wake of COVID-19, economic uncertainty, and the assassination of Abe. He argued that Japan needs to ensure through innovation and cultural exchange that it remains committed to achieving international goals and partnerships.

Following the panel discussion, there was a lively question and answer period with audience members from around the globe. The panelists answered questions on political relationships inside the Kishida cabinet, if there are policy goals that are being overshadowed, and the future of political relations between China and Japan.

We would like to thank the panelists for their brilliant political analysis, as well as the virtual audience that was in attendance for an engaged Q&A session.