Former top diplomat Fumio Kishida elected Japan’s prime minister

Tokyo — Fumio Kishida was elected Japan’s prime minister in a parliamentary vote Monday and will be tasked with quickly tackling the pandemic and other domestic and global challenges and leading a national election within weeks.

With his party and its coalition partner holding a majority in both houses, Kishida won by a comfortable margin against Yukio Edano, head of the largest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. Kishida and his new Cabinet were to be sworn in at a palace ceremony later in the day.

He replaces Yoshihide Suga, who resigned after only one year in office as his support plunged over his government’s handling of the pandemic and insistence on holding the Tokyo Olympics as the virus spread.

Kishida is expected to make a policy speech in Parliament on Friday but is looking to dissolve the lower house to hold elections on Oct. 31, Japanese media reported. Observers see the early date as a move to take advantage of the fresh image of his party and Cabinet to rally support.

Japan's newly-elected PM Kishida arrives at his official residence in Tokyo
Japan’s newly-elected Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives at his official residence in Tokyo on October 4, 2021. ISSEI KATO / REUTERS

A former foreign minister, Kishida, 64, used to be known as a dovish moderate but turned hawkish apparently to win over influential conservatives in the Liberal Democratic Party. He is firmly entrenched in the conservative establishment, and his victory in last week’s vote to replace Suga as the party’s leader was a choice for continuity and stability over change.

Kishida will replace all but two of 20 Cabinet posts under Suga and 13 are being appointed to ministerial posts for the first time, Japanese media reported. Most of the posts went to powerful factions that voted for Kishida in the party election.

Only three women are reportedly included, up from two in Suga’s government. Veteran female lawmaker Seiko Noda, one of four candidates who vied for the party leadership race, is expected to be the minister in charge of stabilizing the declining birthrate and local revitalization. Another woman, Noriko Horiuchi, will become vaccinations minister, replacing Taro Kono, the runner-up in the party leadership race.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi are to be retained, ensuring continuity of Japan’s diplomacy and security policies as the country seeks to closely work with Washington under the bilateral security pact in the face of China’s rise and growing tensions in the region, including around Taiwan.

Japan's newly-elected Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is applauded after being chosen as the new prime minister, at the Lower House of Parliament in Tokyo
Japan’s newly-elected Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is applauded after being chosen as the new prime minister, at the Lower House of Parliament in Tokyo on October 4, 2021. KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

Kishida supports stronger Japan-U.S. security ties and partnerships with other like-minded democracies in Asia, Europe and Britain, in part to counter China and nuclear-armed North Korea.

Kishida is to create a new Cabinet post aimed at tackling economic dimensions of Japan’s national security, appointing 46-year-old Takayuki Kobayashi, who is relatively new to parliament.

Japan faces growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea, which last month test-fired ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets in Japan. Kishida also faces worsening ties with fellow U.S. ally South Korea over history issues even after he struck a 2015 agreement with Seoul to resolve a row over the issue of women who were sexually abused by Japan’s military during World War II.

An urgent task at home will be turning around his party’s sagging popularity, hurt by Suga’s perceived high-handedness on the pandemic and other issues.

He’ll also have to ensure Japan’s health care systems, vaccination campaign and other virus measures are ready for a possible resurgence of COVID-19 in winter, while gradually normalizing social and economic activity.

Kishida said last week that his top priority would be the economy. Kishida’s “new capitalism” is largely a continuation of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic policies. He aims to raise income of more people and create a cycle of growth and distribution.

A third-generation politician, Kishida was first elected to Parliament in 1993 representing Hiroshima and is an advocate for nuclear disarmament. He escorted former President Barack Obama during his 2016 visit to the city that, along with Nagasaki, was destroyed in U.S. atomic bombings in the closing days of World War II.