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Wary of history, LDP's Kishida patiently hopes for peaceful transfer of power from Abe

LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Fumio Kishida is seen during an interview in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on Sept. 5, 2017. (Mainichi)

Fumio Kishida, Policy Research Council chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), paid a New Year's visit to a shrine near his home in Hiroshima on Jan. 4, and spoke circumspectly to reporters there about the party's September leadership election.

"How will I approach the leadership race? There's still time until autumn. I want to think about my response regarding the leadership election while considering how I can contribute to Japanese politics," he said.

On the evening of July 20 last year, after the LDP's crushing defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, Kishida met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a hotel in Tokyo. While firmly declining to stay on as foreign minister -- a post in which he had served under Abe for four years and seven months -- Kishida told the prime minister that he would give him his "full support." Abe responded that he would back Kishida's faction, Kochi-kai.

It was clear that Kishida was speculating on boosting his standing as a candidate to replace Abe by serving in one of the LDP's top three posts following his experience as foreign minister. At the time, support for the Abe Cabinet was declining, and with his administration in a weakened state, Abe was in no position to make an enemy of Kishida's large Kochi-kai faction -- which currently has 45 members.

During a Cabinet reshuffle in August, Kishida was named chairman of the Policy Research Council, one of the LDP's top three posts. Spirits rose within Kishida's faction, as members viewed the post as the last piece in the puzzle that would enable Kishida to run in the party leadership race.

In September, a group of alumni of the prestigious Kaisei Senior High School, which Kishida graduated from, formed a group in Japan's political center of Nagatacho, called "Nagatacho Kasumigaseki Kaisei-kai," and Kishida assumed the position of its chairman. The group received a congratulatory message from Abe. One of the participants divulged, "This is effectively a society aiming for Kishida to be prime minister."

Looking back, this period several months ago may have been the time when Kishida was closest to replacing Abe.

Abe, however, had the upper hand. Dissolving the House of Representatives and holding a general election, Abe led the LDP to a resounding victory, and he solidified his base for securing a third term as president of the party. Not only that, but Taro Kono, whom Abe appointed to succeed Kishida as foreign minister, played an active role in Middle East diplomacy, and enhanced his presence. Kono belongs to the Aso faction led by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, and is also close to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. As a result, Kono quickly surfaced as a dominant faction candidate to succeed the prime minister.

Both Kishida and Abe were first elected to the House of Representatives in 1993, but they were not as close as to be called "friends." Even though the Kishida faction supported Abe in its capacity as a mainstream political bloc, there was no guarantee that the faction would receive a peaceful transfer of power from Abe.

One opinion that continues to smolder within the Kishida faction is that Kishida should take an aggressive approach and run in the LDP leadership race, even if he can't win. Kishida, however, has been reluctant to do this, saying he has gotten to where he is now by following Abe. In a BS Fuji television program on the evening of Jan. 9, he spoke of his wavering mindset.

"In society, I don't think acquisition (of the ripe fruit) is as easy as waiting for it to fall into your lap. But if you fight, you have to win," he said.

Forming the undercurrent to Kishida's position are his bitter memories of the "Kato revolt" of 2000. Koichi Kato (who died in 2016) was serving as leader of the Kochi-kai that year, and was hailed as the person closest to becoming the next prime minister. However, he slipped up by joining with opposition parties to support a failed no-confidence motion against the Cabinet of then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. The prominent, conservative mainstream faction lost its unifying force and eventually split, and since then, the faction has never had a member elected as prime minister. Veteran politicians who remember the "Kato revolt" have persuaded Kishida to be patient, reminding him that the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu came to power because he was able to be patient.

At a year-end party in Tokyo at the end of 2017, Kishida said that for him, the kanji of the year was a character meaning "support."

"Supporting the LDP and supporting the prime minister," he explained.

After the party, participants went out for a karaoke session. The first song that Kishida sang was the 1970s anti-war song "Senso o Shiranai Kodomotachi" (Children Who Don't Know War).

Kishida noted that his creed was different from that of Abe. "The prime minister is hawkish, and I'm dovish," he said. Hailing from an A-bombed city, Kishida holds strong pride in his achievements while serving as foreign minister in 2016, having then U.S. President Barack Obama visit Hiroshima. He differs from Abe on the Constitution, remaining cautious about revising its war-renouncing Article 9. One member who attended the karaoke session called Kishida's song a "constitutional antithesis" to Abe.

Kishida's final song at the session was "Jinsei Gekijo" (Theater of Life). After singing the well-known Showa-era song, set at his alma mater Waseda University, Kishida ad-libbed: "Politics is duty and humanity."

Kishida feels a sense of urgency, wanting to quickly stand in the party leadership race to underscore his differences with Abe, while maintaining patience, retaining hope in Abe's sense of duty and humanity and waiting for a peaceful transfer of power. The conflict between these two positions appears to have surfaced in the songs he chose.

"In the end, the person with the strongest luck is the one who can become prime minister. I've had a bit of luck, but how will it go from here?" Kishida said, hinting at a philosophy that his only option may be to leave things to chance.

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