How much will Japan change with the end of Suga?

Whoever succeeds him as prime minister will need to avert an impending political crisis

There is perhaps no greater symbol to describe what Taro Kono, contender to be the next Japanese prime minister, is up against than the humble fax machine.

As Minister of Administrative Reform and Regulatory Reform, Mr Kono’s task over the past year has been to modernise the way Japan’s federal government functions. But one of his more visible crusades, to ban fax machines from government departments and direct employees to embrace email, has met so much pushback that he has had to make a number of exceptions along the way.

That there is such a thing as the “Ministry of Administrative Reform and Regulatory Reform” is proof enough that the government desperately needs modernisation. That Mr Kono, a former defence minister, has embraced the onerous job of carrying it out suggests he is a reformist. He certainly portrays the image of an outlier, often speaking his mind on Twitter and at news conferences and talking in chaste English – hardly a feature among Japanese politicians.

But not everyone in the establishment approves of these qualities. Many of them happen to be his fellow members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

On Wednesday, the LDP will vote for a new leader. By virtue of the party having a majority in the lower house of the National Diet, as Japan’s legislature is known, its president will become the country’s prime minister. But almost immediately after taking over from the incumbent, Yoshihide Suga, he or she has to prepare the LDP for a general election, to be held no later than November 28.

Party members in recent weeks have debated whether their next leader should be a popular figure among a Japanese electorate yearning for change, or an establishment type who will refrain from rocking the boat. Mr Kono, some believe, is more of a boat-rocker.

In key opinion polls, he enjoys a healthy lead among the party’s rank-and-file members – up to 47 per cent back his candidacy. Many fellow leaders and their powerful factions are far less enthusiastic, rooting instead for former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, an experienced politician who is nowhere near as popular as Mr Kono is with the people.

Complicating matters for both men is the fact that the other two contenders in the race are women; Japan has never had a woman as prime minister. One of them, Sanae Takaichi, is an acolyte of former prime minister Shinzo Abe and, like him, a fierce nationalist and neoconservative. Unsurprisingly, Ms Takaichi has Mr Abe’s endorsement. Also backing her is Finance Minister Taro Aso, even though the latter heads a faction to which Mr Kono belongs. That’s how much the establishment seems to fear Mr Kono.

The problem for Mr Kono is how the LDP picks its leader. Up for grabs are 764 votes, divvied up between the party’s 382 lawmakers and the roughly 1 million dues-paying members who make up the other 382 votes. If Mr Kono – or any other candidate – fails to win more than 50 per cent of the vote, there will be a run-off between the top two finishers. In this second round, the lawmakers will play an outsized role, with each getting one vote while ordinary party members will together command just 47 votes – one from each of Japan’s 47 prefectural chapters.

With Mr Kono most likely to top the first round, the party’s leaders will consider rallying behind whoever progresses to the second round with him. At this stage, that candidate could be Mr Kishida, although it would be unwise to count Ms Takaichi out.

Mr Kono, however, also enjoys broad support among the party’s younger lawmakers. These include Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, the son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and himself a rising star who once famously pledged to make the fight against climate change “sexy”.

A churn is under way within the LDP. It has rarely faced such a sharp generational divide in its 65-year history. A number of young lawmakers are said to have been instrumental in ending Mr Suga's bid for reelection, given their unhappiness with the way he handled the pandemic and how that would affect their own electoral chances in November. But whether the generational divide is sharp enough to force out an all-powerful “old boys club” and move the party to the left with Mr Kono remains to be seen.

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A churn is under way within the LDP

On substantive issues, it seems unlikely that the party will make a decisive break from the Abe-Suga years. In fact, all four candidates (including Mr Kono) have recommended only piecemeal changes to policies pursued by the current and previous prime ministers – whether on national defence, Covid-19 or how to deal with a rising China. Beyond calling for “an end to neoliberalism” and offering similar bromides that sound good ahead of a general election, few concrete proposals have been made.

Indeed Mr Kono himself has campaigned more like an establishment figure, softening some of his positions, including on nuclear energy. An ardent supporter of renewable energy, he is now also calling for the reopening of nuclear plants shut down after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster – a position that is popular within the party but deeply unpalatable for the public.

Be that as it may, Japanese politics has entered a phase of uncertainty. The LDP may still be the country's pre-eminent party. But after a decade of stability that coincided with Mr Abe’s record-long stint at the helm, and amid growing opposition unity in recent months, it risks returning to the 1990s and 2000s, when factional bickering and a conveyor-belt of prime ministers weakened the country’s standing in the world and contributed to its economic stagnation.

At a time of great flux in global politics, it will take great leadership on the part of whoever wins this week, well beyond dumping fax machines, to pull the party and country in a new direction.

Published: September 28th 2021, 4:00 AM
Updated: October 3rd 2021, 6:00 AM
Chitrabhanu Kadalayil

Chitrabhanu Kadalayil

Chitrabhanu Kadalayil is an assistant comment editor at The National