Sheila Smith on Japan’s Political Transition

Sheila A. Smith, an expert on Japanese politics and foreign policy, is senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). She is the author of Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power (forthcoming April 2019 from Harvard University Press), Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China (Columbia University Press, 2015), which was released in Japanese as 日中 親愛なる宿敵: 変容する日本政治と対中政策 (Tokyo University Press, 2018), and Japan's New Politics and the U.S.-Japan Alliance (Council on Foreign Relations, June 2014). She is also the author of the interactive website, “Constitutional Change in Japan,” which will be launched on in March 2019. Smith is vice chair of the U.S. advisors to the U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON), a bi-national advisory panel of government officials and private sector members. She also serves on the advisory committee for the U.S.-Japan Network for the Future program of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation. She teaches as an adjunct professor at the Asian Studies Department of Georgetown University and serves on the board of its Journal of Asian Affairs. She earned her MA and PhD degrees from the department of political science at Columbia University.

Zixuan (Evelyn) Smith CMC '22 interviewed Dr. Sheila Smith on October 8, 2021.

Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Sheila Smith.

As one of the worst waves of the COVID-19 infections hit Japan before the general election, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga saw his approval rate dropping below 30%, a stark contrast to 74% when he took office. Consequently, he announced his resignation and decision ​​not to seek reelection as ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader on September 3. What facets of his COVID-19 response were deemed by the public as ineffective?

Prime Minister Suga's story is apparently a COVID story but it's also partly about his support within the party. In the fall of 2020, Suga was trying very hard to make sure there was no economic distress across the country. All countries have been hit hard by the public health crisis, but also the economic setback from the crisis. 

One of the first things Suga did that the public really didn't like was that he promoted a travel campaign which was called “go to travel”. There were no foreign visitors coming into Japan, but he wanted the Japanese themselves to be able to travel. He also wanted the hotel and travel industry to recoup some of their losses from the impact of COVID. But in a pandemic, encouraging people to get on the Shinkansen train and travel all over the country is probably not the right thing to do. So, it sent very mixed messages about his desire for the Japanese people to stay home and to be careful, while also giving them economic incentives to go travel. That was an odd disconnect.

The second is that the Japanese instituted a state of emergency. This was not a lockdown; it's not like the initial response in Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, or China for that matter. This was very soft, an encouragement by the government for people to stay home and also for Japanese corporations to encourage workers to stay home and tele-work. In Japan, people listen to that kind of encouragement by the government. The central government declared a state of emergency for specific regions, and then when COVID numbers went down, they would lift it. This was done numerous times, however, leading to a growing frustration among the public and among small- and medium-size business owners. By this last spring, we started to see people out on the streets in larger numbers than last year, even though COVID was still a challenge. There was an inconsistent use of the state of emergency declaration that didn't persuade citizens to comply. At the end of the day, the persuasive quality of that policy instrument was weakened. 

Are there other significant factors that led to Suga’s resignation, apart from his poor management of the pandemic?

The first reason is obviously the Olympics. At the beginning of the summer, there was the strong public opinion that the Olympics should be postponed or canceled. I wrote a bit about this on, but the public was asking why Japan was going ahead with these games, when there was a pandemic and when most of the country did not support having the Games in their country. So Suga really suffered from that public outrage. The games began the third week of July. By the beginning of July, you had significant leaders in the business sector saying that this was a bad choice for the country. People, including corporate leaders like the Chairman of the Board of Toyota, chose not to attend the Olympics as a result. It wasn't Suga’s fault, of course, because it was Prime Minister Abe who had committed Japan to the Olympics prior to the pandemic and Japan as the host country did not have sole authority to cancel them. The IOC has to be part of that decision because of financial liability issues. The IOC Chairman came to Japan for the Olympics and he was deeply derided and criticized by the Japanese media and public. 

The second reason is that Suga was a compromise candidate among the LDP factional leaders. He did not have his own faction within the LDP, so he lacked a strong power base. He was Prime Minister Abe’s choice to succeed him for the third and final year of Abe’s three-year term as president of the party. But Suga wasn't strong enough to wield the kind of internal political influence that the big factional leaders such as Aso Taro, the Deputy Prime Minister. There are other voices in the LDP with considerable political influence, including Abe, and Suga couldn't persuade them to continue to back him. If Suga had had a stronger power base in the party, he might have been able to ride it out and prove himself to the people. But party leaders basically told him that they were going to withdraw their support for his tenure, and he decided not to run. Internally, had he had a stronger political foundation within the LDP, he might have. 


By the time of the Lower House election on October 31, many of the COVID-19 measures that the Suga Cabinet had taken had yielded good results. One obvious example was the vaccination rollout. Although slow and bumpy at first, by the time the leadership election at the end of September, over 60% of the Japanese had received one shot. By the end of October, that number had jumped to 70%. Thus managed the LDP took advantage of the policies that Suga had implemented.

Suga’s successor, Fumio Kishida, took office on October 4 as Japan’s new Prime Minister. What new domestic initiatives are expected from the LDP with Kishida as Prime Minister?

Kishida has the same full inbox that Suga had. The primary focus will still be COVID-19, even though some of the hard choices are now behind Japan. But Kishida still has to take this very, very seriously. There is a concern that the Japanese may have just ridden through the fifth wave. They're doing well if you look at the numbers, as their caseloads now are lower than 1,000. But there could be a sixth wave; there could be a new variant. I don't think anybody thinks that COVID is behind us by any means. Prime Minister Kishida cannot take his eye off the ball of COVID. 

The second piece of Kishida’s agenda is to open up the economy again. The state of emergency was lifted before Prime Minister Suga left office. So now the question is how will Mr. Kishida take up the mantle of helping small and medium businesses, people who lost their jobs, and people who were not employed on a full-time basis. Japan has a large proportion of its workers in non-permanent jobs; they're in the part time or the involuntary employment category. Many people lost income. Kishida campaigned during the Lower House election on the idea of not only supporting economic growth in Japan but also of ensuring that that growth is distributed fairly to Japanese households. 

The third issue is that Japan's security situation is worrisome to many. The challenge of China is something that many countries in the region are feeling. Japan is proximate to China even though the East China Sea separates them and is seeing much greater maritime activity by the PLA, the Chinese People's Liberation Army. China’s naval and air forces are operating in and around Japanese territory with much more frequency. The region has also been very focused on PLA’s activity towards Taiwan. There is a security situation that Kishida has to address fairly quickly. The U.S. and Japan had a two-plus-two meeting, which is the meeting of the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense, and on the Japanese side the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense. They had one meeting in the early part of this year and they are expecting to have a second one by the end of this year. The question of the Taiwan contingency will be discussed, along with other complex questions for the Prime Minister and his new cabinet. 

The other piece of the defense is a little surprising but is what came out during the debates for the leadership of the party. One of the candidates, Takaichi Sanae, argued for far greater defense spending, up to 2% of GDP. The LDP’s party manifesto for the Lower House election included this goal. Similarly, North Korea continued to test missiles in the run up to Japan’s election, and Kishida has said publicly he will support the idea of Japan acquiring a retaliatory capability, or an offensive capability. This will be controversial for some Japanese, but there will be some hard choices ahead for the Kishida Cabinet. Expect this prime minister to lead the argument for acquiring new kinds of weaponry that would help deter aggression against Japan. 

These are difficult decisions. There will be popular sensitivities to these decisions. But those two areas -- both the economic growth strategy with a redistributive cast and this new push to make a significant adjustment to Japan's defense capability, including its relationship with the U.S. -- these two areas have already been identified by the Prime Minister in his first formal policy address. 

Is the Prime Minister’s concept of “new Japanese capitalism” a meaningful departure from past approaches to economic governance?

Kishida is arguing for a new Japanese model of capitalism that is not just focused on growth but also focused on the redistribution of wealth in Japan. This is a distinction from Prime Minister Abe’s Abenomics, where the emphasis was really on corporate profit and the stock market, which the Abe Cabinet saw as the chief index of Japanese economic success. What Kishida is trying to do is get the focus back on household wage earners. He has said it numerous times during the party leadership debates and has repeated this since becoming Prime Minister. He wants to make sure that wealth isn't concentrated simply in the corporations but it's redistributed among Japanese workers. This is not a discontinuity from Mr. Abe, but rather a shift in emphasis for Japan's future growth strategy. How he will accomplish this remains to be seen, and most observers expect a hefty stimulus package in the next supplementary budget. 

As the first foreign leader to receive an in-person welcome from U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House, Suga was an important ally for the U.S. in pushing back against China. Do you foresee the U.S.-Japan dynamic changing under the new administration led by Prime Minister Kishida? If so, how?

Japan is crucial to the Biden administration for a couple of reasons. One is that the U.S.-Japan alliance has been central to the U.S. military presence in the region since the end of World War II. The Alliance and the bases for deployment of U.S. forces in cooperation with the Self Defense Forces are critical to the U.S.' own strategy in the region. 

The second piece, which is important for the Biden administration in particular, is the Quad: the meeting of the leaders of Australia, Japan, the U.S. and India. They have met twice this year at the invitation of President Biden: once virtually in February and then in-person in Washington, DC in September. Prime Minister Suga attended that at the White House. Japan is central to U.S.-Japan cooperation in the Quad. Japan, under Prime Minister Abe and continuing under both Suga and now Kishida, see the free and open Indo-Pacific as being critical to Japanese interests and also critical to peace and stability in the region. There is a very important alliance upgrade in the military realm for the U.S. and Japan; but there is also this new focus on regional coordination and cooperation with India and Australia. Cooperation on distributing COVID vaccines, on developing resilient supply chains and on building a coordinated strategy for technological innovation are all on the agenda of the Quad. Those dynamics are only going to deepen the expectations of Japan and Japan's role in shaping U.S. policy as well. 

Under Kishida’s leadership, do you expect a different direction in Japan’s relationship with China or Russia? Are there any signs of a new approach to working with either country’s leadership?

I do not. There was an interview during the race for the presidency of the LDP, where Kishida was interviewed with this question of Japan's relationship with China. There is a tendency to depict Mr. Kishida as a dove in contrast to Mr. Abe, who is seen as being more hawkish, but it is important to recognize that Japanese views of China have undergone a significant transformation since the early 2000s. Today, as Chinese military behavior in the region alarms most of its neighbors and as Beijing uses its economic leverage to coerce political compromise across the globe, Japan sees China’s strategic ambitions as far more worrisome than in the past. 

Kishida’s views on military power, however, derive from the experience of many in his home constituency. His family is from Hiroshima, so he has been an ardent activist for, and diplomatic advocate of, nuclear non-proliferation. He has emphasized that diplomatic stance for Japan in his role as foreign minister and also as an individual leader in the party. But that shouldn't be misconceived or misconstrued as thinking that Mr. Kishida doesn't see Japan's defense needs as requiring greater military capability. He has said that Japan needs to double down and enhance its own defense capability and its own military capability in order to deter aggression against it. In the debates in the leadership election, we saw him referencing the need to be able to reach out and strike an enemy base in the event if Japan were attacked by missiles. There are growing calls is a within the Liberal Democratic Party for a far more robust investment in military capabilities, and Kishida as Prime Minister is now leading that policy initiative. As its neighbors have acquired greater capabilities, he hopes Japan will redress that imbalance. 

The hawk-dove kind of language is not the best way of thinking about Mr. Kishida as Prime Minister, especially as he looks out at the relationship with China. He has been quite forthright in criticizing Chinese behavior in Xinjiang and the repression or suppression of Uyghurs. He has been outspoken even before the LDP presidential race. He was outspoken about the National Security Law being imposed on Hong Kong. He has made his own position on some of these more recent choices by China very clear, even before we got into this fall's more competitive politics in the party. 

On Russia, I don't know how to answer that because I do not know that Mr. Kishida has as strong a view on Russia as he does on China because of Japan's own strategic review. The Japan-China relationship is taking on the cast of a much more difficult strategic relationship. In terms of Russia, the Japanese government and probably Mr. Kishida also, have not been willing to be critical in the same way, or to cast Russian behavior around Japanese territory with the same kind of importance for Japan's long-term security. There's Russian military activity that requires Japanese self-defense forces to scramble and react. More recently, the Russian-Chinese joint military exercises have given Tokyo pause. I don’t see a markedly different policy by Prime Minister Kishida towards Moscow. His predecessor Mr. Abe really wanted and tried hard to come to some kind of accommodation with President Putin on territorial issues because he really wanted to put that to rest and conclude a peace treaty with Russia. It didn't come to fruition. If there were anybody who was going to have success in those negotiations, it was probably Mr. Abe. I don't think this is going to be at the top of Mr. Kishida’s priority list as Prime Minister.


Zixuan (Evelyn) Wang CMC '22Student Journalist

East Asia and Pacific Media Hub U.S. Department of State, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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