Can A Female Replace Kishida As Japan’s Prime Minister? – Analysis


Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his LDP-led coalition government are riddled with fund-raising scandals, plummeting Kishida’s approval rating below 20 per cent. Though Kishida removed a dozen ministers to resuscitate the popularity of his government, that has proved to be a half-measure. As a result, his continuation in office appears to be untenable. In the meantime, it is being speculated if Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa can be the right replacement to Kishida whose star wanes over funding scandal to regain LDP’s failing popularity. If that materialises, Japan can have its first female Prime Minister.

Kamikawa successfully distanced herself from LDP funding scandal while performing her role well on the global stage. The LDP therefore hopes to reset its image if Kamikawa is persuaded to play a key role in the party. The problem is does she have the necessary support of the party to become the Prime Minister. 

Kamikawa’s name as a prospective replacement to Kishida emerged following Kishida’s poll ratings hitting record low. As a result, when news surfaced that senior ruling party members were embroiled in financial scandals, it led to debate on who could be the next leader. Subsequently, the possibility of a woman as the successor to Kishida has gained currency.      

In fact, Kishida’s numbers were tumbling in the latter part of 2023, sinking to 22 per cent in mid-December, over revelations that dozens of members of the ruling LDP had failed to declare funds earned from political fundraising events and simply pocketed the money. The fallout from the scandal continued into the new year, with the arrest of Yoshitaka Ikeda, an LDP backbencher, on suspicion that he took funds amounting to 48.26 million yen ($331,800) from 2017 to 2022 and failed to report them. Ikeda’s arrest was the first in a fundraising scandal that was the biggest to engulf Kishida’s LDP in decades. This revelation and Ikeda’s arrest over slush fund scandal battered support for Kishida.    

Ikeda’s arrest was the first in a scandal that battered support for Kishida and the biggest fundraising controversy to engulf Kishida’s LDP in decades. The scandal forced the resignations of Abe faction heavyweights Hirokazu Matsuno as Kishida’s chief cabinet secretary, Yasutoshi Nishimura as trade and industry minister, and Koichi Hagiuda as LDP policy chief. The three refused to comment on media reports about their involvement. Ikeda’s policy secretary, Kazuhiro Kakinuma, was also arrested. He was accused of having failed to declare the money Ikeda received in political fundraising reports.

The scandal shook the LDP’s powerful Abe faction, previously headed by the late prime minister Shinzo Abe, which has traditionally held a great deal of influence over incoming leaders. It soon transpired that the group amassed some 500 million yen in a secret slush fund, and virtually every member has been implicated, with some political pundits suggesting it could even “collapse” under the weight of the bad publicity.

Kishida resorted to damage-control measures and launched a task force to tackle the scandal in an attempt to restore support for the government that was plummeting at a faster pace. In the meantime Kishida had weakened. His potential rivals were disgraced. Even politicians/lawmakers who managed to avoid the taint of scandal failed to firmly state their cases for the leadership position. Against this ugly background, top diplomat Kamikawa has been tipped as a quiet challenger.   

Kamikawa’s credentials are quite impressive. She has a master’s degree from Harvard University and was elected to the Diet for the first time in 2000. Her rise in the political firmament has been rather rapid. She quickly rose through the LDP’s ranks and served as minister of justice – rubber-stamping the executions of one person in 2014 and a further 15 people between October 2017 and July 2018, 13 of whom were members of the apocalyptic Aum Shinrikyo cult – before being appointed foreign minister in September 2023. This demonstrates that she is of firm political mettle and can competently shoulder the burden of governance in the interest of the nation. 

Ever since September 2023 when Kamikawa took office as Japan’s foreign minister her reputation has been gradually bolstered by her energetic foreign visits. In early January 2024, she met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and told reporters later that she and Blinken agreed that their countries will work together to maintain and strengthen the free and open international order based on the rule of law. 

Then she visited Ukraine where Kamikawa showed her skill as an engaging diplomat when she visited Kyiv and met with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky and her Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba in Kyiv and gave a press briefing from an underground bomb shelter as air raid sirens sounded. She then travelled to Poland and Finland, where she reassured the two countries’ leaders that Japan would stand by them in the face of Russian aggression. Her other unplanned visits were to countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands, the US, Canada, Germany and Turkey. She discussed with Kuleba Japan’s plans to host a conference to promote Ukraine’s economic reconstruction in Tokyo on 19 February 2024.

While in Ukraine, Kamikawa pledged $37 million to Kyiv to provide a drone detection system. Earlier, Japan allocated some $1 billion in humanitarian aid to Kyiv. Japan has joined Western sanctions against Russia in its aggression in Ukraine and provided weapons to Kyiv. She also committed to supply five generators to help Ukraine “survive” another winter during the Russian assault. She was the first foreign guest in Ukraine in 2024.

What goes in Kamikawa’s favour is that she had no hand in the party’s financial scandals and successfully distanced herself from the issue while performing her role well on the global stage. Since major figures in the LDP are embroiled in the funding scandal or have other baggage to deal with, the party may see it compelling to do something radical. That makes the possibility of Kamikawa with a clean image assuming the mantle of governance a possibility.

According to a Jiji Press survey in December 2023, Kamikawa was named by 3.1 per cent of respondents as the LDP member who is most fit to become prime minister. She ranked sixth, behind former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba and others, but ahead of Kishida, who was named by only 1.6 per cent.

Unfortunately the Abe faction has lost much of its influence. This paves the prospect of another faction or an individual unaffiliated with a group/faction within the party. Here, Kamikawa fulfils the criteria. However, Kamikawa’s run might not be smooth as there are some other women lawmakers who might be tempted to run for the LDP leadership. Tomomi Inada, who has held a number of ministerial portfolios and most recently defence, and Sanae Takaichi, the current minister of economic security could emerge as potential challengers to Kamikawa in the leadership race.           

However, both could face challenges. While Inada is a member of the crumbling Abe faction, Takaichi is an outspoken hawk whose views are too right-wing for most in the party to swallow. In contrast, Kamikawa has remained mostly behind the scenes and is not involved in any controversy and thus is a “safe” minister to replace Kishida. The big question is, if Kamikawa is ready to take the plunge. The other big question is if she can generate sufficient support among her fellow politicians to become the country’s prime minister. 

Another factor that needs to be kept in mind is that despite LDP factions are weakened because of the funding scandals, there are some more powerful than rank-and-file members of the party’s prefectural chapters. Yet it could be in the LDP’s interest to back Kamikawa who has the competence to navigate through factional politics to ensure political stability and rejuvenate LDP’s future. If the political challengers to Kishida fail to organise themselves with an alternative political model, Kishida could stay in office for quite some time. 

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Former Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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