By Takuya Nishimura, Senior Fellow, Former Editorial Writer for The Hokkaido Shimbun
The views expressed by the author are his own and are not associated with The Hokkaido Shimbun
You can find his blog, J Update here.
October 29, 2023. Special to Asia Policy Point
Live TV coverage of the prime minister’s question and answer sessions in the Diet is not popular since the questions and the answers look like they are following script. In the latest session, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida began by just reading out prepared papers at the podium.
Viewers would have been rewarded, however, by the aggressive Q&As that followed. These were led not by the opposition parties, but by the LDP. The party’s members seem to be frustrated with Kishida’s indecision on tax policy and the continuing decline in popular support for the Cabinet.
The Q&A session began with an unusually critical speech by Hiroshige Seko, the Secretary General for the LDP in the House of Councillors. “Regretfully, I cannot help recognize some weakness in the decisions and words of Prime Minister Kishida so far,” said Seko.
Referring to Kishida’s actions on the announcement of tax cuts, Seko said “although you said on September 25th, that you would properly return the increased tax revenue to the people, the word ‘return’ was not easy to understand. The word invited speculation in the leading parties on whether it meant allowance or tax cut, and you failed in communicating with the public about what were you wanted to do at all.”
To be fair, it is not correct to say that Kishida suddenly began to mention “return” of increased tax revenue only a month ago. In his 2021 campaign, Kishida argued for the distribution of the fruits of economic growth, in the context of a contemporary income doubling plan. Kishida has simply missed opportunities to remind the nation of his idea.
Seko also instructed Kishida on what he should have done. “If you have said that ‘I will immediately introduce an allowance, because the hardship of a low-income family is serious. I will also deal with tax cut for the rising price because it oppresses middle class households and causes stagnation of consumption. I will decide those measures consulting with the experts in LDP,’ the discussion in the party would not be so confused and the people could easily understand your idea.” The words of a would-be prime minister indeed.
Kishida’s response was not illuminating. “In the time of major change in economy, society, diplomacy and security,” said Kishida, “it is important for a leader to tell the people about the change and show an attitude with strong determination to achieve the policy goals for an ideal future.” Any prime minister can say that.
Kishida’s reception among LDP leadership was no better in the House of Representatives. This time the focus was on a constitutional amendment allowing for the Self-Defense Forces. LDP Deputy Secretary General Tomomi Inada asked Kishida about his position on such an amendment. Inada argued strongly for adding the words “Self-Defense Forces” to Article 9. Further, she noted that the Constitution’s preamble states “we have determined to preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world.” Inada, like former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, dismissed this as incompatible with the current world reality.
Kishida answered that he would responsibly tackle the issue as the president of LDP. “The Constitution is a basic law which describes the shape of a state as it should be. It is important to think about whether it has been fitting for the changes, for example, in the security environment around Japan or in society with decline of population and demographical concentration to Tokyo,” said Kishida. Notably, Kishida’s view of the Constitution as a basic law differs from Abe’s position that the Constitution should be something telling about the future or the ideal shape of a state.
The opposition parties were antagonistic as well. Kishida once said that he would accomplish amending the Constitution within his term as the president of LDP, which means that it should be done before the presidential election next fall. Conservative groups in LDP insist on it. At this time, if Kishida is to succeed, the draft of the amendment must be passed in the regular session of the Diet next year, which will lead to a national referendum.
The other opposition parties agree. The leader of the Democratic Party for the People, Yuichiro Tamaki, said that this extraordinary session is the final opportunity for reaching an agreement on the amendment. If the parties fail to do so, the amendment will not be initiated in next regular session. The head of the Innovation Party, Nobuyuki Baba, asked whether Kishida is sufficiently determined that he will step down if there is no action by next fall. Kishida answered only repeated his responsibility for the issue.
The opposition also focused on the economy, arguing that Kishida’s economic policy hurts low-income families. In contrast to Kishida’s phrase, “It’s economy, economy and economy,” Kenta Izumi, the head of the Constitutional Democratic Party stressed that “It’s allowance, allowance and allowance.” He proposed a ¥30,000 of allowance for all low-income families by the end of this year. Izumi observed that tax cuts will take time, because the cuts must be debated before they can be enacted in regular session of the Diet next year.
Izumi also pointed out the contradiction between a tax increase to fund the defense budget and a tax cut to fight inflation. That contradiction is a vulnerability of Kishida’s. LDP lawmakers have asked the same question. The Chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council, Koichi Hagiuda, has dismissed a tax increase for defense in 2024.
In the discussion in Committee on Budget in the House of Representatives after the parliamentary questions were finished, Kishida announced that he would not pursue a tax increase next year. Well, how is Kishida going to find alternative funding for the defense budget? It is likely that the opposition parties will have a field day with Kishida’s inconsistency on tax policies.
A third issue in the Diet was the My Number Card. In an unexpected response to Izumi’s request to postpone the elimination of the current health insurance card, Kishida said he would take necessary measures to avoid further implementation issues, even if more time is needed.
Kishida has been changing his focus from one issue to another: from defense enhancement to the low birth rate, and from tax increases to tax cuts or allowances. Compromises indicate a lack of policy deliberation and may cause voters to see Kishida as a weak leader.
With the parliamentary questions finished, there is no sign that Kishida’s approval rating will rise. They in fact have declined further, with TV Asahi and others reporting on the results of its opinion poll conducted over the weekend that put the approval rating for the Kishida Cabinet at a record low of 26.9%, down 3.8 points from last month.
Meanwhile, another scandal has hit the Kishida administration. The Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Education, Taro Yamada, stepped down after Shukan Bunshun Online reported that Yamada had an extramarital affair. “I wanted to prevent the matter from becoming an obstacle to parliamentary business,” said Yamada to the reporters.
Yet another blow to the Kishida administration.