Decoding Japan’s Political Trajectory in 2024
As 2024 opens, Japan’s politics, particularly the fortunes of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, is witnessing an accelerated downward spiral. A week after Kishida sacked four cabinet ministers implicated in a major fund-raising scandal in mid-December, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office raided the offices of two powerful LDP factions (namely the largest Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai or Abe faction and the fifth largest Shisuikai or Nikkai faction). The special squad is investigating allegations against LDP officials over their failure to declare fundraising proceeds worth about ¥600 million JPY (around $4.18 million USD). Prosecutors say this is a violation of domestic campaign finance laws.
Global economic growth is predicted to slow down in 2024. Wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East are increasing geopolitical risks. Upcoming elections in the United States and Taiwan are heating regional geopolitics and potentially complicating Japan’s China challenge. What would be the impact of Japan’s internal political developments on its foreign policymaking in the year ahead?
Kishida’s Gordian Knot of Troubles
In a December 2023 Asahi Newspaper survey, the majority of the respondents highlighted the Japanese public’s continuing lack of faith in the ruling government — the lowest since 2012. Those respondents also indicated a lack of faith in Kishida as the country’s leader (60% of respondents wanted Kishida to resign as the prime minister).
The recent political crises are primarily a result of the LDP’s near dominance amid a lack of viable opposition. The support ratings of the opposition parties are in dismal single digits. Other factors are factionalism and top leadership gaining unabated power in the LDP.
Factions within the LDP, essentially comprising lawmakers with similar policy visions, work toward making their faction leader the party president. The party president, in turn, is the most likely candidate for prime minister. The relationship involving the factions, the party, and the government positions naturally promotes a quid pro quo system, potentially propelling abuse of power.
The End of the Abe Factions?
Speculations are rife that the current scandal would be the end of such strongman politics. Perhaps it would hasten the demise of the powerful Shinzo Abe faction, which was already impacted by Abe’s assassination in 2022 and the ensuing scandal involving some LDP politicians’ links to a controversial religious group. Kishida had already begun the process by reshuffling the cabinet twice in less than four months to exclude key Abe faction members from his administration.
As a result, the Abe faction as a whole is now in a relatively weakened position within the LDP. A shift in the balance of power within the LDP, including the Abe faction, is thus widely anticipated. The possibility of a split cannot be denied. One group would be led by Kishida, a member of the Kochikai faction, versus another led by the ousted cabinet members who strengthen the opposition against Kishida. In any case, Kishida is facing a dire situation in his political career.
The Rise of the ‘Factionless’ Leader?
Even if he survives this scandal, he stands the risk of being part of a party that neither fully trusts him, nor fully supports him. Overall for the LDP, this Kishida government crisis has further disrupted the restructuring of LDP’s factional politics. The restructuring seemed to have been put into motion after the downfall of the then-LDP Secretary General Akira Amari in 2021.
Should Kishida choose to resign, the prospects of any Abe faction lawmaker ascending to his position remain diminished. After all, the LDP presidential race is scheduled for September 2024. This is particularly evident as certain members are already perceived by the electorate as being compromised due to their association with the erstwhile Unification Church. Consequently, the LDP might pivot toward selecting a “factionless” leader such as Shigeru Ishiba, with 20% support in recent polls.
On top of the party troubles, Kishida is facing a contracting economy and inflation. He also faces expansive plans for an unprecedented defense budget amid a highly combatant China, Russia, and North Korea and chilly China-Japan relations.
His efforts, such as the ¥17 trillion JPY ($113 billion USD) economic package, aim to combine tax cuts and wage hikes to ultimately create a “virtual cycle.” However, some see these efforts as attempts to “appease” voters amid the raging political scandals.
Kishida faces the tough task of both steering his sinking political ship and making good on his promise to revitalize the Japanese economy. The PM and his party do not face national elections until 2025, and despite failing optimism about their fates, both will likely stay afloat.
2024 Foreign Policymaking Trends under an Unstable LDP
As domestic politics keeps him more and more occupied, Kishida — if he manages to stay in power — will be able to divest less time into foreign trips. He has already called off an upcoming trip to South America reportedly planned for January. This will certainly impact his personal diplomacy practice which brought great dividends for Japan’s geopolitical profile, particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
His “new-era realism” and “summit” diplomacy reached a crescendo with the hosting of the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Hiroshima in May 2023, which also saw a rise in his approval ratings at home. It also improved ties with South Korea and strengthened the Japan-South Korea-US “new era” trilateral security cooperation, which includes a multi-year “regularized” exercise plan.
Furthermore, India and the US, as well as the strategically important Taiwan, are preparing for general elections in 2024. Amid these preparations, groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the US) and bilateral alliances/partnerships will be on alert.
China and Taiwan
While there is bipartisan consensus on factors like the threat from China and North Korea, leadership changes will impact certain areas where consensus is still lacking. For example, the Russia-Ukraine war or the extent of the support for Taiwan — issues crucial for Japan’s security.
In Taiwan, the Japanese government has been in touch with the three presidential candidates from the ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Kuomintang (KMT), and Taiwan’s People Party (TPP). Both KMT and TPP favor an “amicable” approach to China. Japan doesn’t want to be ill-prepared post the 2024 elections, regardless of which party wins.
As regards China, despite frosty ties, Japan-China relations are showing signs of a limited thaw. The China-Japan-South Korea trilateral resumed meetings after a hiatus of four years. Yet, Japan has not eased its stance on the China threat. This is evident in Japan’s outreach to neighbors amid growing regional tensions, the formulation of a new security strategy, and the accelerated deployment of long-range cruise missiles capable of hitting targets in China or North Korea. Japan has also relaxed its postwar ban on lethal weapons exports, coupled with a record increase in military spending in 2024.
Drastic Changes Unlikely
Vis-a-vis India, Japan need not worry. The incumbent majoritarian party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to return to power going by its multiple victories in India’s state elections.
But the return of disruptive former President Donald Trump to power (if that happens), in tandem with the Japanese leadership in the doldrums, may not bode well for the already debt-ridden Japan. There are concerns about Trump’s aim to collect what some label heavy “protection fees” from US allies. However, US-Japan ties are unlikely to reverse trends. Japan is too important an ally for the US in regional politics dominated by concerns over the China threat.
Overall, whatever shape Japan’s domestic political turmoil assumes, its foreign policymaking trajectory is unlikely to change remarkably from what recent years have highlighted. Japan is slowly but surely moving away from its pacifist endeavors amid growing triple threats from China, Russia, and North Korea. With the new defense budget and proactive diplomacy, Kishida has set the ball rolling for emphasizing Japan’s indispensability in fighting global challenges. And with the forced changes in his administration, he has unwittingly propelled changes in his party politics too.
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