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Big in Japan

Japan's ruling party selects Fumio Kishida as leader, presumptive prime minister

Japan's longtime ruling Liberal Democratic Party selected former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida as its new leader Wednesday, ensuring he will become prime minister when parliament votes next Monday. Kishida won a rare competitive internal party election, beating vaccinations minister Taro Kono by one vote in a four-way contest that was ultimately decided by LDP lawmakers. One of his first challenges as prime minister will be to lead the LDP, which has governed Japan for most of the past 66 years, through national elections set for mid-November.

The LDP's popularity, which sagged under outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's handing of the COVID-19 pandemic and Tokyo Olympics, is rebounding amid a successful vaccination drive that led the government to end a state of emergency. Kishida, 64, is leader of an older LDP faction of patricians who rose in the party through top bureaucratic posts and/or family connections. Kono is more popular among younger LDP members and the party rank-and-file.

Kishida, who was foreign minister from 2012 to 2017, comes from a political dynasty based in Hiroshima, which he, his father, and grandfather all represented in parliament. He is expected to continue favoring the U.S.-Japan alliance and vocally promotes nuclear nonproliferation, but said during the campaign that Japan needs to consider building a defensive missile-strike capability to deter China, North Korea, and other potential enemies. As foreign minister, Kishida brokered a deal with South Korea over Korean sex slaves during World War II, though it later fell apart, and helped arrange former President Barack Obama's historic 2016 visit to Hiroshima. 

Domestically, "although the LDP is generally seen as conservative and pro-business," The Wall Street Journal reports, "Kishida staked a more left-leaning position on the economy, at least in rhetoric. He called for a 'new Japanese-style capitalism' that would redistribute wealth more aggressively to shrink the gap between rich and poor, which he said had widened during the pandemic."

"If the profits from growth are monopolized by a few people, the gap will widen even further," Kishida told the Journal. "It's not just about growth, it's about distribution. Distribution equals income."