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Japan’s new PM Fumio Kishida: Calm centrist promising spending

Japan's new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is a soft-spoken former foreign minister with a reputation for seeking the middle ground and a fondness for baseball.

Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a news conference at the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo on October 4, 2021. (Photo by Toru HANAI / POOL / AFP)

Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is a soft-spoken former foreign minister with a reputation for seeking the middle ground and a fondness for baseball.

The 64-year-old scion of a Hiroshima family of politicians is widely regarded as a safe pair of hands, despite a low-key presence that has sometimes been characterised as a lack of charisma.

He took office on Monday after winning the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), replacing Yoshihide Suga, who resigned after just a year in the top job.

Kishida has pledged to spend big on new pandemic stimulus, vowing to tackle income inequality and move away from the neo-liberal economics that has dominated Japanese politics for the past two decades.

“I want to re-establish a virtuous circle between growth and distribution, so as many as possible across the whole archipelago can reap the rewards,” he said after last week’s party leadership vote.

Seeking to set himself apart from the unpopular pandemic response of Suga’s government, the new premier has also touted his listening skills and vowed to “create an atmosphere in which we can address the crisis together”.

Kishida served as foreign minister between 2012-17, during which time he negotiated accords with Russia and South Korea, with whom Japan’s relations are often frosty.

He has called abolishing nuclear weapons “my life’s work”, and in 2016 helped bring then-US president Barack Obama to Hiroshima on a historic visit.

But despite his liberal reputation, he has been reticent on some social hot-button issues like gay marriage, saying he had “not reached the point for accepting same-sex marriage”.

He has also taken a cautious line on allowing married couples to keep separate surnames, another controversial issue.

Baseball fan
Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Kishida entered politics in 1993, after working at a bank as the Japanese economy boomed.

As a child, his family lived for several years in New York where he suffered racism at school, an experience he reportedly says gave him a strong sense of justice.

Kishida is a big fan of the Hiroshima Carp baseball team, and is said to enjoy a drink, while his wife hails from a wealthy sake-brewing family.

At school he was a keen baseball player himself, but failed three times to pass the law entrance exam for Tokyo University, much to his parents’ disappointment.

He studied instead at Waseda, a prestigious private university in the capital that he reportedly chose for its serious, unpretentious atmosphere.

As prime minister, the father-of-three is generally expected to hew to Japan’s existing path on defence, foreign and economic policy.

He “shares the same policy core” as Suga and his predecessor Shinzo Abe, said Corey Wallace, an assistant professor at Kanagawa University who focuses on Japanese politics.

However, “what he really, really stands for is a little bit unclear… nothing really stands out as Kishida’s personal hobby-horse issue,” Wallace told AFP.

Kishida has pledged to unleash economic relief measures worth tens of trillions of yen (billions of dollars), which will be key to shoring up support before a general election to be held in a matter of weeks.

The LDP is expected to retain its parliamentary majority, but could lose some seats over public discontent with the government’s handling of the pandemic.

During the party leadership contest, Kishida invited voters to leave him messages in a suggestion box and carried a notebook to events in which to scribble down ideas from the public.

But he hasn’t always connected with the population and found himself roundly mocked during last year’s LDP leadership vote when he posted an awkwardly posed picture on Twitter of his wife serving him dinner in an apron.

That didn’t put him off, however, and after his leadership victory last week, Kishida posted a picture of a famous Hiroshima-style dish — okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake — that his wife had made him in celebration.

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