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Japan’s generational election will change little

Leaders of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) gather for a press conference in Tokyo on Sept. 17, 2021, ahead of their election to choose a successor for outgoing party president and prime minister Yoshihide Suga. (POOL / AFP)
Leaders of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) gather for a press conference in Tokyo on Sept. 17, 2021, ahead of their election to choose a successor for outgoing party president and prime minister Yoshihide Suga. (POOL / AFP)
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18 Sep 2021 02:09:28 GMT9
18 Sep 2021 02:09:28 GMT9

My fascination with Japan began in college, where I learned things there were seldom as they seemed to outsiders. For instance, my wise professor quipped that its long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party could best be understood as “neither liberal, nor democratic, nor much of a party.” Fascinated by all this intellectual vagueness, I began a love affair with the country that has lasted to this day.

The analytical fog persists. With the resignation of the luckless Yoshihide Suga, the LDP leadership contest of Sept. 29 will anoint the next prime minister. With its electoral rivals divided and unpopular, the general election that must be called by November is highly likely to lead to another comfortable LDP victory. So the winner of this month’s leadership contest looks set to lead this great power well into the medium term.

Prime Minister Suga, long the chief aide and enforcer for the long-running, successful premiership of Shinzo Abe, had less of an impact on the throne. Earlier this month, Suga decided to stand aside for re-election as party leader after months of declining popularity, both in the country at large and within the LDP itself. For example, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper’s opinion poll of late August found the Japanese people having only a meager 28 percent support for the Suga Cabinet, down three points in just a month. Two-thirds of those polled stated that they had no faith in Suga’s approach to the pandemic, the premier’s political Achilles’ heel.

At 72, Suga will probably be the last of his generation to serve as prime minister. The present leadership contest has been defined by the outside media as a generational change, both within the LDP and in Japanese society at large. While on the surface this is surely true, it is a fact that conceals — in typically Japanese fashion — more than it reveals. Even as Japan’s ruling elite in the LDP changes hands, the general policy thrust of the party and the country seem clearly heading in the same general strategic direction former Prime Minister Abe established. While the ages of the leaders will markedly change, Japan itself will not.

Taro Kono, the present vaccines minister and front-runner to succeed Suga, is a case in point. In a poll published by Asahi, Kono had 33 percent public support to become prime minister, well ahead of his closest rival, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who was at 14 percent. While only LDP lawmakers and rank-and-file party members get to vote for the party leader, the looming general election means popular support will be a larger-than-usual factor in their decision-making.

While the ages of the leaders will markedly change, the country itself will not.

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Kono, only 58, is by a long way the public’s favorite to succeed Suga. However, the party elders who control the various factions of the LDP (and wield great power behind the scenes) are wary of his reputation as a political maverick, as well as his preternatural self-confidence, which can spill over into arrogance.

However, no one doubts Kono’s talent for communication. In a Twitter-mad society, the vaccines minister has 2.3 million followers, making him a celebrity in a staid and even quietist political culture. A graduate of Georgetown University and fluent in English, Kono is a skilled communicator in several languages. Especially popular with younger voters, the party leaders have in Kono someone capable of reaching swathes of society they simply cannot, all the while generally hewing to the LDP party line.

In terms of issues, the short leadership campaign has been dominated to an unprecedented extent by a debate over how to stand up to an increasingly aggressive China. Strategically, this has centered on Beijing’s increasingly bellicose overflights of Taiwan, still viewed by China as a renegade province. As a former Japanese colony, Tokyo has a strong emotional and economic tie to the democracy and worries about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s increasingly warlike statements that he will not wait forever for reunification. Secondly, there remains the political controversy over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, which Japan controls but China claims.

However, while Kishida has stressed Indo-Pacific tensions in the leadership contest to highlight his stint as the successful Abe’s foreign minister, in practice there will be little strategic difference between the two candidates as to how they manage great power relations.

Japan will continue to increase its defense spending, which is set to grow to $50 billion next year — a record amount. Tokyo will also continue to work to make the Quadrilateral Initiative — a nascent NATO-like alliance composed of India, Japan, Australia and the US — more and more of an anchor in the efforts to contain Chinese expansionism. Further, Japan will increase its already-brewing efforts to join the Five Eyes intelligence consortium, which, with Anglosphere members Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and the US, is the most important intelligence-gathering organization in the world.

Despite the generational “change,” what is so fascinating about the present LDP leadership election is that, in policy terms, so little will actually be altered from Abe’s trailblazing geostrategic path. Not for the first time, things in Japan are not quite as they seem.

John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also a senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via

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