Japan’s Fumio Kishida took office as the country’s new Prime Minister on Monday, tasked with leading the world’s third-largest economy out of the coronavirus pandemic.
Kishida, 64, who was elected leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last week, was officially confirmed as the country’s 100th prime minster following a parliamentary vote – his elevation all but a given due to the LDP’s majority in the lower house.
Following the vote, Kishida announced his new Cabinet, which is stacked with allies of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Of the 20 members, 13 have no previous Cabinet experience, three are women and the average age is 61.
A moderate liberal regarded as a stabilizing hand, Kishida inherits a Japan that has suffered surging Covid-19 infections, a stagnating economy, a rapidly aging population and increasing tensions with China.
Kishida served as the country’s foreign minister from 2012 to 2017 under Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. He succeeds outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who announced earlier this month he would not run in his party’s leadership election following a turbulent term marked by a slump in public support as he struggled to contain the coronavirus.
Analysts say Kishida is seen as a consensus builder, an establishment choice who represents stability. But the political veteran wasn’t the popular choice – he had lackluster support from the public and struggled to shake off his image as a boring bureaucrat.
His first major test will be the next general election, in which he’ll be the face of a party that’s been criticized for its handling of the pandemic under Suga.
“He’s not going to be a TV star. He’s not going to capture the imagination of the average Japanese person. But the Japanese people want stability and security, and I think he will be able to provide that,” said Keith Henry, president of political risk and business consulting firm Asia Strategy.
What to expect from Kishida’s administration
In his first address as prime minister on Monday, Kishida said his top priority would be to implement effective Covid-19 counter-measures, such as vaccinations, increased testing and providing support to the country’s health services.
Japan has vaccinated 60% of its population against Covid-19, and last week the country lifted its state of emergency amid a drop in infections. Social and business restrictions are gradually easing and Japan loosened entry restrictions for some visitors. But there are concerns the virus could make a resurgence over the winter months.
“We will thoroughly analyze the corona response so far and examine what was the bottleneck of the crisis response,” Kishida said.
As expected, Kishida announced the date for the next general election for October 31. He will dissolve the House of Representatives on October 14, the final day of an extraordinary Diet session, setting the stage for election campaigning to start on October 19.
His first address also focused on his economic plan for the country, which is to develop “new capitalism” in which wealth is distributed more equally among all members of society. Kishida campaigned on narrowing the income gap, saying the eponymous economic policies of Abe – known as “Abenomics” – failed to “trickle down” from the rich to the poor. He has also proposed a hefty recovery package worth “several tens of trillions” of yen to steer Japan’s economy out of its pandemic-induced slump.
“A deep feeling among the Japanese people that this gap between the haves and have-nots, the gap between wealth, wages and opportunity is increasing,” Henry said.
Other key policies announced were his government’s efforts to a reach a global society free of nuclear weapons, and to lead the world in promoting global warming countermeasures and creating new rules such as reliable and free data distribution (DFFT).
In his Monday address, Kishida – who faces an increasingly aggressive North Korea – also announced that he was willing to meet Kim Jong Un “without any conditions” to secure the return of Japanese abductees.
“The abduction issue is the most important issue,” he said. “We will do our utmost to realize the earliest possible return of all abductees.”
On foreign policy, Kishida has previously committed to “the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” His predecessor Suga attended the first in-person meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as “the Quad,” an informal strategic forum of the United States, Australia, Japan and India, in the US last month.
Kishida is expected to support a strong alliance with the US and other allies, and a key challenge will be balancing Japan’s deep economic ties with China and its concerns about Beijing’s growing military assertiveness in the region.
The new prime minister has also said he wants to take measures against the country’s declining birthrate, and believes nuclear energy should be considered as a clean energy option.
Analysts question whether Kishida will be a lasting leader, or whether Japan will return to a period of political instability similar to that of the pre-Abe era, when Japan cycled through six prime ministers in six years.
“There are so many complicated issues. And he is not the strongest leader in the ruling party of LDP. So I’m so concerned about the revolving prime minister system,” said Takeshi Niinami, economic advisor to former Prime Minister Suga and CEO of Japan’s beverage giant Suntory.
On Monday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent a congratulatory letter to Kishida, expressing hope the two leaders will develop Korea-Japan relations and cooperate as neighboring countries, South Korea’s Blue House said.
CNN’s Gawon Bae in Seoul contributed to reporting.