Japan’s Likely Next Prime Minister Tries to Set Himself Apart
The man all but assured of becoming Japan’s next prime minister, Fumio Kishida, is an establishment pick who has sought to portray himself as more than just another colorless bureaucrat.Mr. Kishida, 64, has called for economic policies that would distribute more wealth to the middle class, and written that spending part of his childhood in the United States instilled in him the ideals of justice and diversity.His message has not resonated with much of the Japanese public, but it was enough to win him leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party on Wednesday, virtually guaranteeing that he will become Japan’s next prime minister, a role for which he has been preparing for decades.Mr. Kishida’s father and grandfather both served as members of Japan’s House of Representatives. In 1993, he successfully ran for the parliamentary seat from Hiroshima that his father had held.Mr. Kishida would go on to become a stalwart of Japan’s ruling party and the longest-serving foreign minister in the country’s post-World War II history.He has been widely described as an uncontroversial moderate who holds the trust of party grandees. Still, in a political system that rewards conformity, Mr. Kishida has sought to distinguish himself from the unpopular departing prime minister, Yoshihide Suga.On the campaign trail, Mr. Kishida carried around a series of notebooks in which he said he wrote down notes and observations from people he met while traveling the country, calling the notebooks “my biggest treasures.”He has said that he feels a strong sense of justice, developed in part during a childhood stay in the United States.In 1963, his father, then a government trade official, was appointed to a post in New York. The family relocated, and Mr. Kishida, at age 6, enrolled at public schools, including P.S. 13 in the Elmhurst section of Queens, where he attended second and third grade. In a 1965 class photo, he is seen wearing a bow tie, standing in front of a giant American flag.His classmates included children of many backgrounds — white, Korean, Indian and Native American — but he sometimes felt the sting of racial discrimination. In his book “Kishida Vision,” published last year, Mr. Kishida described a time in 1965 when a white classmate refused to hold his hand as instructed by a teacher on a field trip.Still, he came to admire the United States, finding it remarkable that students of varied backgrounds “respected the national flag and sang the anthem together in the morning.”Updated Sept. 29, 2021, 6:01 a.m. ET“The U.S. was an enemy of Japan during the war and the nation that dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima,” he wrote. “But I was young, and to me, the U.S. was nothing but a country that was generous-hearted and filled with diversity.”A baseball fan — he supports the Hiroshima Carp, his hometown team — he was an infielder on his high school team and an average student, failing a law school entrance exam three times. When he said he was interested in politics, his father tried to push him down another path, warning that “there’s nothing sweet about the political world.” But after a stint in banking, Mr. Kishida got his first political job, as his father’s secretary.Once in office, Mr. Kishida rose steadily, eventually being appointed foreign minister by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2012. His term was defined by two notable achievements: helping to arrange then-President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima in 2016, and finalizing an agreement with South Korea in which Japan compensated “comfort women,” the term for those taken as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II.He also courted his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, forging a bond over their shared fondness for whisky and sake as he sought to improve a relationship that has foundered on a territorial dispute over islands seized by the Soviet Union after World War II.Unlike the teetotal Mr. Abe, Mr. Kishida is known inside the party as an enthusiastic drinker. One year, Mr. Kishida wrote, he planned a birthday party for Mr. Lavrov and presented the Russian diplomat with a bottle of 21-year-old Hibiki whisky. In return, Mr. Lavrov gave Mr. Kishida an ornately bound book. Mr. Kishida opened it to find a bottle of vodka inside.“If we’re drinking, we’re friends,” Mr. Kishida wrote. “The relationship in which both sides can talk straightforwardly is the first step to international peace.”But Mr. Kishida has struggled to connect with voters. Last year, during the race to succeed Mr. Abe, Mr. Kishida suffered embarrassment when he tweeted a photo of his wife bringing him dinner at home. The image, which showed him seated in a suit and tie and his wife standing, wearing an apron, was widely mocked as out of touch and misogynistic.In this year’s race, Mr. Kishida appeared to acknowledge public dissatisfaction as he promised to introduce a “new capitalism” and encourage companies to distribute more of their profits to middle-class workers. Neither the public nor rank-and-file party members had shown much support for Mr. Kishida. But the conservative wing of the party, which dominates Parliament, opted for a safe pair of hands.Makiko Inoue and Motoko Rich contributed reporting.