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Japan’s Standing Is Rising. Not So Its Leader’s

When Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visits the White House Friday, he’ll be doing so at a time when his country has rarely been so important to the US. But how important is he? 

With an ever-more assertive China dominating thinking, suddenly everyone, from Australia to the UK, seems to want to be friendlier with Tokyo. Japan is the “linchpin” to any successful US defense of Taiwan from a Chinese invasion, according to the results of a recent set of war games by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which recommended that the White House deepen its relations with Tokyo. That’s something the administration of Joe Biden is already working on. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, declared Japan’s “emergence as a major geopolitical actor” will be the sleeper story of this year. Even South Korea has indicated it wants better defense ties. 

From the perspective of the security establishment in Washington, Kishida has done what decades of his predecessors could not. He’s taken a momentous step forward in making Japan a more militarily “normal” country — something the US has long desired — by ending a decades-old informal cap on defense spending that will double expenditure to 2% of gross domestic product. He’s also done it with surprisingly little drama — there’s no protests on the streets, and no shock moves upsetting the region like the late Shinzo Abe’s visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine did in 2013. 

It’s perhaps telling, too, that Japan has largely avoided criticism from the US over its continued imports of Russian gas, as well as its currency intervention to strengthen the yen last year. Both would at other times have been potential flashpoints. With the US seeking its help restricting chip-equipment exports to China, Japan has cards to play. 

Kishida’s economy minister called recently for a “new world order” of democratic countries to oppose authoritarian regimes. In May, Kishida will host the Group of Seven leaders at a summit in his constituency of Hiroshima, where he can further these goals while he pitches his long-held dream of a nuclear-free world. 

It’s tempting to think that Kishida is flying high. Yet from Tokyo, the prime minister is seen in a very different light — at best as an enigma, at worst a lame duck. There’s every chance that Friday’s first trip to Washington since becoming prime minister in 2021 could also be his last. 

Despite Japan’s rising geopolitical significance, many believe that the G-7 meeting might not be Kishida’s crowning achievement in office, but his final one. He is deeply unpopular with the public: A poll this week found just 33% support him, the joint-lowest figure he’s recorded. That’s almost as bad as the worst rating of his deeply unloved predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who stepped down not long after reaching those lows.

To be fair, Kishida has been buffeted by forces mostly beyond his control. Inflation is running at 40-year highs, mostly owing to imported energy, with over half of households saying their economic situation has deteriorated in the last year. He was blindsided by the issue of long-standing ruling Liberal Democratic Party ties to the Unification Church that surfaced after Abe’s killing in July, but have little to do with him personally.

Nonetheless, Kishida himself must shoulder much of the blame for his unpopularity. His day-to-day administration at times appears chaotic, lurching from one scandal to another. He’s allowed issues such as the Unification Church links or the furor over Abe’s state funeral to fester in the public imagination. He’s had to replace four ministers of a cabinet he only assembled in August, and this is raising the question of whether he has surrounded himself with the right people, with weak personalities in several major roles.

He’s also shown a mystifying lack of ambition when it comes to domestic policies. After months of buildup, his signature economic drive, known as “New Form of Capitalism,” was dead on arrival. He’s demonstrated little appetite to tackle entrenched issues such as labor reform, while attempts to encourage foreign investment or kickstart growth sectors have been half-hearted. 

And things are only heating up. Japan’s annual spring wage talks, when labor unions negotiate with firms, will be more closely watched than ever given rising prices. Kishida wants wage hikes above the consumer price index, but despite fast-fashion giant Uniqlo’s owner promising lavish raises, most expect little change in their wallets. Meanwhile, having inherited Abe’s expansive monetary policy, Kishida, who has displayed little personal interest in the central bank, will now be in a position to decide the direction of future policy as he chooses who will be the next Bank of Japan governor. 

He’ll need to get both issues right. But he has further hindered his cause by insisting on talking about hiking taxes to finance defense spending, as well as the unpopular suggestion that the consumption tax could be raised to pay for measures to stimulate the birthrate. While he has little to worry about from Japan’s inept opposition, the ruling party will move to push rather than wait for him to jump if his unpopularity continues. An unusual rebuke (1)from his predecessor, Suga, this week has some wondering if an internal ouster is beginning. 

There are parallels with Kishida’s US counterpart. Biden, too, is a leader whose initial signature achievements were largely in foreign policy, and who helped restore his nation’s place in the world. The president survived those rocky first years to emerge in a better position than ever after the midterms. Electoral success could also be Kishida’s key to survival: he could call a snap poll, perhaps after the G-7 summit. Assuming the LDP allows him to lead it into a vote, a solid showing would put the party under his control once again. The two men have a lot to discuss.

More From  Bloomberg Opinion: 

• US ‘Guardrails’ With China Are Shaky at Best: Hal Brands

• Joe Biden May Just Provide the Push Japan Needs: Gearoid Reidy

• Taiwan Must Heed the Wake-Up Call From Ukraine: Clara F. Marques

(1) Suga’s criticism, that Kishida should not be heading his party faction while also leading the country, is certainly mild by international standards, but Suga’s remarks are unusual and his suggestion that the public is not having their voice heard was surely intended to sting.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and the Koreas. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia, and was the Tokyo deputy bureau chief.

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