Japan’s Election Looks Closer Than Usual, but Party in Power Has Hit Snooze

TOKYO — Japan has had no shortage of faceless prime ministers over the decades, a revolving door of leaders forgotten nearly as soon as they leave office. The most recent to hit the exit, who himself lasted only a year, was faulted for a communication style that often came across like a cure for insomnia.

Now comes Fumio Kishida, who was chosen as prime minister last month by the governing Liberal Democrats and is hoping to lead the party to victory on Sunday in a closer-than-usual parliamentary election.

In anointing Mr. Kishida, 64, the Liberal Democrats passed over both an outspoken maverick who was popular with the public and a far-right nationalist who would have been Japan’s first female leader.

While slightly less stodgy than his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, Mr. Kishida is frequently described as “boring” by the Japanese media, and he still struggles to connect with the public, or even his supporters and friends.

“His speech sounds so serious that it doesn’t sound interesting even if he was meaning to say something interesting,” said Ikuzo Kubota, 67, the chairman of a real estate management company in Hiroshima, who has known Mr. Kishida for more than 30 years. “Even now, I sometimes think that he should learn how to say things in an interesting way.”

The rise of Mr. Kishida, a former foreign minister, is a potent reflection of the Liberal Democrats’ entrenched power in Japan. He was selected precisely because of his milquetoast persona, political experts said, as it allows behind-the-scenes power brokers to project their agenda onto him. And the party made its choice confident that it could win the election despite his lack of charisma.

But the gamble is likely to have consequences. Facing public discontent over economic stagnation and the government’s initial handling of the coronavirus crisis, the Liberal Democrats are projected to lose seats and merely eke out a majority. Many voters are expected to stay home.

Mr. Kishida delivering his first policy speech in Parliament this month.Credit…Charly Triballeau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Hoping to emerge from the election less weakened than expected, Mr. Kishida crisscrossed the country on chartered flights during the two-week campaign period. At his final campaign stop on Saturday night, before a packed square in front of a Tokyo train station, Mr. Kishida received a smattering of polite applause as he shouted a hearty “Good evening.”

His voice cracked repeatedly as he tried to project enthusiasm into his stump speech, stumbling over his pledges to build a new style of economics and protect Japan in the face of growing regional instability. He wrapped up with a warning that Japanese democracy would be threatened if the country’s Communist Party gained more seats in Parliament.

Mr. Kishida’s rhetoric about a “new capitalism” that would narrow income inequality, a platform aimed at a disgruntled public battered by coronavirus-related restrictions on business, has grown vaguer over the course of the campaign.

He has ratcheted back a proposal to raise taxes on capital gains. Instead, he has returned to a familiar economic playbook for the Liberal Democrats, calling for more fiscal spending on projects backed by large industries such as construction, which typically support the party.

“He’s almost like a figurehead for other figures in the party to get their ideas through,” said James Brady, the head Japan analyst at Teneo, a risk advisory consulting firm. “He’s not a strong leader. He’s not someone who’s coming up with a lot of ideas.”

Like many other Liberal Democratic lawmakers, Mr. Kishida was brought up in a political family. Both his grandfather and his father served in the House of Representatives, and Mr. Kishida started his political career as a secretary to his father.

Although Mr. Kishida represents a district in Hiroshima and his family is from the area, he was raised mostly in Tokyo. He spent three years in New York when his father was posted there during a stint at the trade ministry.

He often cites the formative experience of attending a public elementary school in the Elmhurst section of Queens, describing an incident in 1965 when a white classmate refused to hold his hand as instructed by a teacher on a field trip. Mr. Kishida says the moment seeded in him a lifelong commitment to fairness and justice.

Campaign posters in Tokyo for the general election Sunday.Credit…Carl Court/Getty Images

Back in Japan, Mr. Kishida was an ardent — although, by his own admission, middling — baseball player. He tried, and failed, three times to pass the entrance exam for the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious state university.

He finally enrolled at Waseda, a top private university in Tokyo. In “Kishida Vision,” a memoir published last year, he wrote that he was more interested in music and mahjong than academics during his undergraduate years.

Mr. Kishida started a career in banking, gaining empathy, he wrote, for people and small businesses struggling to repay loans.

When his father died of cancer at age 65, Mr. Kishida ran for the Hiroshima seat in 1993 and won. He has served in various cabinet positions and was Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

He did not leave much of an impression on his colleagues. “I have no memory of him even though I met him every week in cabinet meetings,” said Yoichi Masuzoe, a former governor of Tokyo who served as health minister when Mr. Kishida was a minister in charge of Okinawa and a string of islands known as the Northern Territories.

Some civil servants in the foreign ministry gave him the nickname “Chihuahua,” referring to him behind his back as a “well-mannered type of dog,” said Gen Nakatani, a former defense minister who has known Mr. Kishida for 30 years.

One lawmaker whom Mr. Kishida met in college and described as one of his best friends went on to back a rival, Taro Kono, in the Liberal Democrats’ recent leadership election.

Mr. Kishida lacks the swagger or arrogance that characterizes other politicians. He “listens to people, is calm and never speaks ill of others,” Mr. Nakatani said. “He doesn’t behave in a selfish manner.”

He was foreign minister when President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima in 2016, and when South Korea and Japan signed an agreement in 2015 to compensate so-called comfort women, the term for those taken as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II. But Mr. Kishida rarely gets credit for these accomplishments.

Mr. Kishida, right, with President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in 2016.Credit…The Asahi Shimbun, via Getty Images

If he is remembered, it is as an abundant drinker who maintains his dignity and leaves the bar before midnight. In his memoir, he wrote of matching Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, drink for drink. Mr. Kishida once hosted a birthday party for his Russian counterpart and presented him with a bottle of Suntory Hibiki 21 whiskey, which retails for about $750.

When Caroline Kennedy was the American ambassador in Tokyo, Mr. Kishida gave her T-shirts, aprons and mugs imprinted with photos or cartoons of her face.

His attempts to endear himself on social media have sometimes fallen flat or drawn outright jeering.

A post he shared on Twitter and Instagram, showing his wife standing in the kitchen doorway while he sat at the table eating a dinner she had prepared, was roundly mocked. Videos showing his wife, Yuko, 57, and his three sons cheering him on have been slightly more popular.

“He’s a little bit socially and culturally out of step with the majority of the population,” said Shihoko Goto, a senior northeast Asia associate at the Wilson Center in Washington.

His self-effacement undergirds a political pragmatism that allows him to pivot when certain ideas grow unpopular or he needs to cater to a particularly powerful constituency. More often than not, that constituency comes from within the party, not the public.

As a politician from Hiroshima, Mr. Kishida has opposed nuclear weapons and taken more dovish stances on foreign policy. But as a candidate for prime minister, he ramped up his hawkish views on China and championed the restart of nuclear power plants, the vast majority of which have been idled since the triple meltdown in Fukushima 10 years ago. Supporting nuclear power is a key agenda item for the right wing of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Because Mr. Kishida won the prime ministerial election backed by lawmakers “more geared toward pleasing organized interests and big businesses,” he now has to reward them, said Megumi Naoi, an associate professor of political science at University of California, San Diego.

As for his proposals on economic inequality, Ms. Naoi said she could not tell how sincere he had been in the first place. “I don’t know how much of this is his belief,” she said, “or just campaign strategy or political survival strategy.”

Makiko Inoue, Ben Dooley and Hikari Hida contributed reporting.

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