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Editorial: Can Japan PM Kishida's new Cabinet stay independent, deliver on policies?

The second Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was inaugurated on Nov. 10, and it faces a mountain of issues, both internally and externally. How will it steer Japan through these difficult times?

    Following the Oct. 31 House of Representatives election, Kishida stated that he had "gained the public's confidence." This being the case, he bears a heavy responsibility.

    The coronavirus crisis has brought problems such as widening economic disparity into sharp relief. The international situation is also turbulent, with confrontation between the United States and China continuing.

    The nine years that followed the inauguration of the second administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were conspicuously marked by a style of Diet management in which power in numbers was used to push policy through without listening to dissenting opinions. Parliamentary democracy was distorted.

    How will Kishida free himself from Abe's yoke and build the new version of Japan that he envisages? His ability to deliver will be called into question.

    Noteworthy among the Cabinet appointments is Yoshimasa Hayashi, chairman of the Kishida faction (Kochikai), as foreign minister. Hayashi also serves as chairman of the multi-partisan Japan-China friendship parliamentarians' union, and has publicly stated, "We can't suck up to China, but it's all right to be deeply knowledgeable about China."

    There is smoldering friction within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) between conservative hardliners advocating firm opposition, and those with a dovish approach emphasizing dialogue with Japan's neighbor.

    Former Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira, who handled negotiations to normalize diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Beijing as foreign minister, at one point headed the Kochikai faction.

    Hayashi was appointed as foreign minister despite expected opposition from conservatives including Abe. The point now in focus is whether this will be a step toward "independence," with Prime Minister Kishida firmly at the helm of the administration.

    Kishida is looking to walk a practical path that involves at once engaging China in dialogue while countering it, with the Japan-U.S. alliance as a pivot. Kishida's skills will be put to the test when considering how to utilize a dovish foreign minister on that path.

    Kishida's intentions are strongly reflected in the appointment of Gen Nakatani as the newly established prime ministerial assistant in charge of human rights issues. Nakatani is a veteran legislator who has previously served as minister of defense and follows the Kochikai's line. Nakatani will be responsible for collecting information and overseeing the government's response on various issues, with China's oppression of human rights in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in mind. It can be said the prime minister has allowed room for a flexible response by assigning the role to Nakatani, a figure he trusts deeply.

    Besides these issues, Kishida also faces many domestic problems. He needs to work out his policy priorities after clarifying what kind of a society he wants to achieve.

    In the LDP's party presidential election earlier this year, Kishida underscored a shift from neoliberalism to "redistribution." But at a meeting of the government's panel on achieving his "new capitalism" vision, it appears the focus had been moved to "growth."

    Although several other expert panels have been set up, there are notable appointments of key actors from the Abe era. This approach merely carries on Abe's "Abenomics" economic policy mix, and we cannot discern the prime minister's intended direction.

    Previously the Ohira Cabinet established several policy research groups, such as those to discuss a "garden city state concept," and "pan-Pacific solidarity." Cultural anthropologist Tadao Umesao and playwright Masakazu Yamazaki, among others, were appointed to discuss long-term issues and present new visions.

    If Kishida is holding up a "new capitalism" sign, then he needs to prepare a system to orchestrate a large-scale vision.

    Since the Abe administration, the way policy-making decisions are carried out has been transformed. The top-down approach left by the prime minister's office has become stronger, and there have been fewer opportunities to adopt a diverse range of opinions from within the party.

    With the full-scale launch of the Kishida Cabinet, Abe, who stepped down from his post a year ago, has returned to the Hosoda faction to become its chairman. As head of the largest faction, he could increase his influence over Kishida's administration.

    Prime Minister Kishida has underscored his "listening ability." It has been pointed out that the country is becoming a place where the ruling party has more power than the government, and this raises the question: Who is the prime minister listening to and what kinds of decisions will he make? He must display leadership.

    The question of how the prime minister will face the issue of constitutional amendment is also likely to rise to the fore.

    The Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party), which made strides in the recent lower house election, stresses that a referendum on constitutional revision should be held in line with the House of Councillors election next summer. It appears to back amendment of the Constitution at an early stage, as Abe had advocated.

    Constitutional amendment, however, was not a major point of contention in the general election. Moving the issue forward on a schedule like this is rough and reckless.

    Prime Minister Kishida, we thought, took a conservative approach toward amendment of the Constitution from the outset. It is essential to discuss in depth the ideal state of the Constitution as the nation's supreme law and the pros and cons of amendment with wide-ranging public discussion. A hasty approach must be avoided.

    The prime minister has advocated "advancing careful and tolerant politics based on trust and empathy" as his political creed. Now that he is the country's leader, it is time for him to act on those words.

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