TOKYO – Japan has not lacked faceless prime ministers for decades, a revolving door of leaders that is almost forgotten as soon as they leave office. The latest to hit the exit, which itself lasted only a year, was accused of a communication style that often seemed like a cure for insomnia.
Now comes Fumio Kishida, who was elected prime minister by the ruling Liberal Democrats last month and hopes to lead the party to victory on Sunday in a closer-than-usual parliamentary election.
At the anointing of Mr. Kishida, 64, passed the Liberal Democrats by both an outspoken maverick who was popular with the public and an extreme right-wing nationalist who would have been Japan’s first female leader.
Although he is a little less rigid than his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, Mr Kishida is often described as “boring” by the Japanese media, and he still struggles to get in touch with the public or even his followers and friends.
“His speech sounds so serious that it does not sound interesting, even though he meant to say something interesting,” said Ikuzo Kubota, 67, chairman of a property management firm in Hiroshima, which has known Mr Kishida for more than 30 years. “Even now, I sometimes think he should learn to say things in an interesting way.”
The appearance of mr. Kishida, a former foreign minister, is a potent reflection of the Liberal Democrats’ entrenched power in Japan. He was chosen precisely because of his milquetoast persona, political experts said, as it allows behind-the-scenes power brokers to project their agenda onto him. And the party made its choice with confidence that it could win the election despite his lack of charisma.
But the investment is likely to have consequences. Faced with public discontent over economic stagnation and the government’s initial handling of the coronavirus crisis, the Liberal Democrats are expected to lose seats and simply gain a majority. Many voters are expected to stay home.
Hoping to come out of the election less weakened than expected, Mr. Kishida landed at the crossroads of charter flights during the two-week campaign period. At his last campaign stop on Saturday night, before a crowded square in front of a train station in Tokyo, Mr Kishida received a bit of polite applause as he shouted a hearty “good evening”.
His voice repeatedly cracked as he tried to project enthusiasm into his blunt speech, stumbling over his promises to build a new style of economy and protect Japan in the face of growing regional instability. He concluded with a warning that Japanese democracy would be threatened if the country’s Communist Party were given more seats in parliament.
Sir. Kishida’s rhetoric about a “new capitalism” that would narrow income inequality, a platform aimed at a dissatisfied public hit by coronavirus-related business restrictions, has become more vague over the course of the campaign.
He has thwarted a proposal to raise the capital gains tax back. Instead, he has returned to a well-known economic playbook for the Liberal Democrats, which calls for more fiscal spending on projects supported by large industries such as construction, which typically support the party.
“He’s almost like a galleon figure to other people in the party to get their ideas through,” said James Brady, Japan’s chief analyst at Teneo, a risk advisory firm. “He is not a strong leader. He is not one who comes up with many ideas.”
Like many other liberal democratic legislators, Mr Kishida was raised in a political family. Both his grandfather and his father served in the House of Representatives, and Mr. Kishida began his political career as secretary to his father.
Although Mr. Kishida represents a district in Hiroshima and his family is from the area, he mainly grew up in Tokyo. He spent three years in New York when his father was posted there during a stay at the Department of Commerce.
He often cites the formative experience of attending a public elementary school in the Elmhurst part of Queens, and describes an incident in 1965 in which a white classmate refused to hold his hand as instructed by a teacher on a field trip. Mr. Kishida says that moment in him sowed a lifelong commitment to justice and fairness.
Back in Japan, Mr. Kishida was an avid – even though he himself admits a middleman – baseball player. He tried, and failed, three times to pass the entrance exam to the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious state university.
He finally enrolled in Waseda, a top private university in Tokyo. In “Kishida Vision,” a memoir published last year, he wrote that he was more interested in music and mahjong than academics during his undergraduate years.
Sir. Kishida started a career in banking and gained empathy, he wrote, for people and small businesses struggling to repay loans.
When his father died of cancer at the age of 65, Mr Kishida ran for the Hiroshima seat in 1993 and won. He has held various government posts and was Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
He did not leave much of an impression on his colleagues. “I do not remember him even though I met him every week in cabinet meetings,” said Yoichi Masuzoe, a former Tokyo governor who served as health minister when Mr Kishida was minister responsible for Okinawa and a number of well-known islands. as the northern areas.
Some State Department officials gave him the nickname “Chihuahua,” referring to him behind his back as a “well-behaved type of dog,” said Gen Nakatani, a former defense minister who has known Mr Kishida for 30 years.
A lawmaker whom Mr Kishida met in college and described as one of his best friends continued to support a rival, Taro Kono, in the recent Liberal Democrats’ leadership election.
Mr. Kishida lacks the scam or arrogance that characterizes other politicians. He “listens to people, is calm and never speaks ill of others,” said Mr. Nakatani. “He does not behave in a selfish way.”
He was Secretary of State when President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima in 2016, and when South Korea and Japan signed an agreement in 2015 to compensate so-called comfort women, the term for those taken as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II. But Mr Kishida rarely gets the credit for these achievements.
If he is remembered, it is like an abundant drinker who preserves his dignity and leaves the bar before midnight. In his memoirs, he wrote about matching Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, to drink to drink. Mr. Kishida once hosted a birthday party for his Russian colleague and presented him with a bottle of Suntory Hibiki 21 whiskey, which sells for about $ 750.
When Caroline Kennedy was US Ambassador to Tokyo, Mr. Kishida gave her T-shirts, aprons and mugs printed photos or cartoons of her face.
His attempts to love himself on social media have sometimes fallen flat or been directly mocked.
A post he shared Twitter and Instagram, which showed his wife standing in the kitchen door while sitting at the table eating a dinner she had prepared, was mocked. Videos showing his wife, Yuko, 57, and his three sons cheering on him have been a little more popular.
“He’s a little bit socially and culturally out of step with the majority of the population,” said Shihoko Goto, a senior employee in Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington.
His self-annihilation underpins a political pragmatism that allows him to turn around when certain ideas become unpopular or he needs to turn to a particularly powerful constituency. More often than not, this constituency comes from within the party, not the public.
As a politician from Hiroshima, Mr Kishida has opposed nuclear weapons and taken more dove-like positions on foreign policy. But as a prime ministerial candidate, he increased his hawkish view of China and advocated the restart of nuclear power plants, the vast majority of which have stood still since the triple meltdown in Fukushima 10 years ago. Support for nuclear power is a central agenda item for the right wing of the Liberal Democratic Party.
Because Mr. Kishida won the prime ministerial election backed by lawmakers “more geared toward pleasing organized interests and big business,” he now has to reward them, said Megumi Naoi, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.
As for his proposal on economic inequality, Naoi said she could not tell how sincere he had been in the first place. “I do not know how much of this is his belief,” she said, “or just campaign strategy or political survival strategy.”
Makiko Inoue, Ben Dooley and Hikari Hida contributed with reporting.