Japan’s Political Map after Shinzo Abe

Mohamed Fayez Farahat | 09 Sep 2020

On 28 August 2020, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his resignation from his post as head of government and head of the ruling party in Japan, thus opening the way to competition for the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been chaired by Abe since 2012. Given that the party has parliamentary majority, the winning candidate is not expected to face any parliamentary obstacles that would prevent him from assuming the post of prime minister. This means that the winning candidate would take over the remaining term of Abe’s government until the next parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2021. However, this period would ultimately constitute a transitional period until the next parliamentary elections are held, leaving its features on the political and party maps in Japan after 2021.

Shinzo Abe: Japan's right-wing "icon"

The significant international transformations in the world order since the late 1990s have contributed to the rise of the right-wing trend in Japan. The most striking feature of this trend had been the foundation in 1997 of the organisation Nippon Kaigi (Japan’s Conference), which brings together elements from the Japanese right and far right. The organisation aims to change the Japanese awareness that was established after World War II, together with what this means in terms of reconsidering the legacy of that stage which ended up putting huge restrictions on the external movement of Japan, especially on the external role of the Japanese army and the right to use military force as a right of state sovereignty. This restriction was formalised by its inclusion in the Japanese Constitution that was drawn up in 1946 by the US occupation authority at the time (1945-1952), where Article 9 of the Constitution explicitly states that “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized”.[1] Hence, revising the Constitution, and the text of Article 9 in particular, constitutes a main goal of the right-wing and the Nippon Kaigi organisation.

Shinzo Abe is considered one of the most important symbols of this trend. His weight within this trend has increased due to the successes he achieved in the field of the required review. This trend has succeeded in employing a number of international shifts and regional crises to gradually maximise Japan’s external role, starting from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (financial contribution to the costs of the war), the events of September 2001 (contributing to providing logistical support for the war in Afghanistan), and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 (sending Japanese non-combat forces to Iraq). However, the right-wing trend witnessed a strong boost during the second Abe government (2012-2020), as Abe succeeded in employing the North Korean threat and Chinese policy in the East and South China Seas to support this trend. Abe worked to systematically ease restrictions on Japan’s external role through a set of steps, the most important of which are:

1. Developing the alliance with the US so that it would go beyond Japan’s immediate geographical domain to cover important border conflict areas with China in the East China Sea.

2. Expanding the space for Japanese foreign movement by shifting from the concept of "Asia-Pacific" to the concept of "Indo-Pacific", and building strategic partnerships with countries of common orientations and interests, especially India and Australia.

3. Seeking to revisit the constitutional and legal restrictions. In light of the difficulties that continue to face the amendment of Article 9 of the Constitution, in 2015, Abe succeeded, after a huge struggle with the political opposition, to make the Japanese Parliament (National Diet) enact a law that allows Japan to participate in combat missions abroad side by side with the allied powers under the title "collective self-defence".[2]

Political mobility within the LDP

Following Shinzo Abe’s announcement of his resignation as LDP chairman and prime minister, movement within the party accelerated. However, the starting point of this movement was not related to Abe's resignation, but rather to the close end of the term of the current Abe government, which was scheduled to end in October 2021. This meant that the different factions within the party had to prepare for the upcoming elections and competition for the leadership of the party. It was believed that after Abe was sworn in for his third term after the 2017 elections, the party would tend to introduce amendments to the rules governing the party’s leadership in a way that would allow Abe to assume the party’s leadership for a fourth term. However, Abe’s popularity was greatly shaken in 2020 due to the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, which led the party's symbols and leaders to tend to compete for the party leadership and prepare for the 2021 elections. In other words, Abe’s decision to resign came in the context of a state of mobility that existed prior to the resignation decision. The fact that Abe did not recommend a specific candidate or side with any of the candidates competing for the party leadership contributed to the heating up of this movement and competition.

There are two mechanisms/methods for selecting a party leader within the LDP. The first method is direct general elections with the participation of all party members at the Japanese prefectural level, in addition to the party's parliamentary bloc. In the second way, voting is restricted to members of the party’s parliamentary bloc and representatives of the Japanese prefectures (3 representatives from each prefecture, with a total of 141). The choice between the two mechanisms depends on the nature of the moment at which the elections take place and the time available. On 31 August 2020, the party announced that the next elections would be held on 14 September 2020 according to the second method, which means that the electoral body would include 535 voters (394 being members of the party’s parliamentary bloc, in addition to 141 representatives of the 47 Japanese prefectures).

Up to the date of writing this paper, three candidates were competing for the party leadership:

1. Shigeru Ishiba, born in February 1957, has been a member of the Japanese House of Representatives since 1986, and held a number of important positions during the governments of Junichiro Koizumi, Yasuo Fukuda, Taro Aso, and Shinzo Abe, most notably Director-General of the Japan Defense Agency (Ministry of Defense) in the Koizumi government during the period (2002-2004), Minister of Defense during the two years (2007-2008) in the Fukuda government, Minister of Agriculture during the years (2008-2009) in the Aso government, Secretary-General of the LDP in September 2012 after the party's return to power, before being appointed as Minister for Overcoming Population Decline and Vitalising Local Economy by Shinzo Abe in September 2014. Ishiba competed for the party leadership position three times, in 2008, 2012 and 2018, but was not successful in any of them.

Ishiba is considered a symbol of the Japanese right-wing. He is one of the most interested figures in military matters, believing that Japan must have a force equivalent to the US Marine Corps to defend its sovereignty over the disputed islands in the East China Sea. In 2011, he declared his support for Japan's retention of the capability to build nuclear weapons and to produce a nuclear warhead within a short period of time by converting its peaceful nuclear capabilities into military capabilities.[3] Ishiba reaffirmed this right in 2017.[4] He also declared in 2013, against the backdrop of the crisis with North Korea, that Japan has the right to deliver a pre-emptive strike against North Korea.[5]

Although Ishiba opposed the phenomenon of factions within the party, in September 2015, he was forced to form a faction under the name of Suigetsu-kai [taken from a Zen phrase that describes a higher state of selflessness] to support his chances of success in the competition for the party leadership. He is also a member of the Nippon Kaigi organisation.

2. Yoshihide Suga, born in December 1948, has been a Member of the House of Representatives since 1996, and Chief Cabinet Secretary since 2012. Earlier, he held a number of important executive positions, most notably the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, and the Minister for Privatisation of the Postal Services, during Abe’s first government (2006-2007). He also assumed a number of responsibilities within the party, including overseeing the LDP Organisation and Campaign Headquarters in October 2011, and Executive Acting Secretary-General of the LDP in September 2012.

Suga had been close to Shinzo Abe for a long time, especially during the second half of the 2000s and the first half of the following decade. He was a staunch supporter of Abe’s running for the party leadership in the 2012 elections. Unlike Abe’s other allies, Suga encouraged Abe to focus on the economy rather than the issue of revising Article 9 of the Constitution, which constitutes Shinzo Abe’s greatest ambition. While serving as Chief Cabinet Secretary, Suga served as an adviser to Abe and assumed an active role in the government. He played an important role in the government's initiatives to attract tourists and foreign workers and reduce mobile phone prices. He formed a team to review the 1993 Kono Statement after Japan decided to form a team to review the steps that led to the issuance of the 1993 Statement in which Japan admitted to sexually exploiting women during World War II.[6] However, the group was shortly dissolved because of failure to reach a consensus.

Suga also managed to resist the party’s refusal to implement the programme of opening the doors to unskilled foreign workers and shift away from the previous Japanese policy that focused on receiving foreign workers only in low-wage jobs. He was one of the staunchest advocates of the tough measures taken by the Bank of Japan to counter deflation. In 2015, he was criticised for publicly encouraging Japanese women to "contribute to their country" by having more children. Suga was on the list of the government team responsible for confronting the Covid-19 pandemic, and during that period, heavily criticised the Japanese bureaucracy due to internal divisions and poor coordination between ministries. Suga's tenure as Chief Cabinet Secretary is the longest in almost all of Japan's history (he was only preceded in this by Yasuo Fukuda who held the position for nearly three and a half years).

Suga has the support of important factions within the party, most notably Taro Aso's faction and the LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai faction, the two largest factions within the party. He is also a member of the Nippon Kaigi organisation.

3. Fumio Kishida, born in July 1957, has been a member of the Japanese House of Representatives since 1993. He held a number of positions, most notably Minister of State for Okinawa and the Northern Territories during the period 2007-2008 in Yasuo Fukuda’s government, Minister of State for Consumer Affairs and Food Safety In 2008 in Yasuo Fukuda’s government, Minister of State for Science and Technology in the same government, and Minister of Foreign Affairs during the period 2012-2017 in the Abe government. In preparation for the party's presidential elections that were to be held in September 2018, Kishida left the government in 2017 to take over the chairmanship of the LDP Policy Research Council.

Kishida comes from a parliamentary family (father and grandfather were both members of the Japanese Diet). Like most members of the Abe government, he is a member of the Nippon Kaigi organisation. For a while, he remained Abe’s favourite candidate to succeed him in the leadership of the party and the government. However, many party leaders gave up supporting him, including Taro Aso who said that “Kishida is for peacetime, not for troubled times”.[7]

Various post-Abe scenarios

There are two levels for discussing the post-Shinzo Abe phase: the first level is the one from September 2020 to October 2021, which is the remaining phase of the Abe government; and the second is the post-October 2021 phase, which is the post-parliamentary election phase in which the LDP returns to compete with the political opposition.

1. From September 2020 to October 2021

According to public opinion polls conducted after Shinzo Abe announced his resignation, the competition for the party leadership would be essentially limited to Shigeru Ishiba and Yoshihide Suga. Both possess elements of strength and at the same time face some sources of weakness. Hence, the chances of their success/failure would depend on the general mood of the Japanese voter.

The most important elements of Ishiba's strength are the experience of political competition for the party leadership position, extensive political experience in the field of defence, his strong position in support of building a strong army, including the possession of nuclear capabilities and Japan's right to carry out a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. These positions give Ishiba an element of distinction in the face of Suga within the right-wing trend. Besides, Ishiba has another strength, namely his critical approach to Shinzo Abe, which may help him win over some of the voices opposed to Abe.

However, despite the importance of the previous power elements, they may lose their importance during the current stage, for two main reasons. The first is the priority of the economic challenge against the background of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the persistence and importance of the North Korean threat, there continues to be a trend that believes that escalation against North Korea is not the best approach to dealing with the Korean regime. The second is the state of sympathy with Abe due to his departure from office for health reasons, which may call for support for Suga who worked from within the Abe government.

On the other hand, the most important elements of Yoshihide Suga’s strength are his expected focus on economic issues as a first priority before security issues and constitutional review on the one hand, and on the other hand his extensive experience within the government through his role as Chief Cabinet Secretary, which provided him with a great opportunity to follow up on many files. This latter point favours Suga within the trend supportive of the completion of the policies of Abe’s government. In addition, Suga has the support of important factions within the party.

Despite the great interest attached by Ishiba to the Japanese military capabilities, his success in the elections necessitate his government's focus in the short term on economic issues, especially dealing with the repercussions of Covid-19. However, he would soon give remarkable attention to security issues and the issue of constitutional review. In contrast, Suga's success would entail his government's focus on economic issues as a priority, such as addressing the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, reforming the bureaucracy, seeking to create new jobs, strengthening the local market and revitalising regional economies, promoting agrarian reform, and boosting the tourism sector. His government is also expected to focus on the issue of declining birth rates through a number of incentive policies, which are issues that received great attention by Suga during his work as Chief Cabinet Secretary in the Abe government. The issue of amending the Constitution would have a secondary priority. The relationship with the US and the Japanese policy in the Indo-Pacific are not expected to change much in either case.

2. Post-October 2021

No major change is expected to occur in the Diet’s map after the elections scheduled for October 2021. Hence, the LDP is expected to continue to dominate the Diet. The most important factor in the continuation of this domination is the weakness of the political opposition with its various trends, starting with the centre and centre-right parties (the Democratic Party (DPJ), and the Justice Party (Komeito)), and the left-wing parties of various degrees (the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), and the Social Democratic Party (SDP)), together with the internal schisms characterising some of them.

The success of the LDP in the upcoming elections will have important implications for the Japanese party system, mainly the consolidation of the continued phenomenon of the dominant political party which has settled in Japan under the leadership of the LDP since the mid-fifties of the last century, with the exception of very limited periods in the political history of Japan. Despite the success of the DPJ in achieving progress in the 2009 elections, the LDP quickly returned to power in 2012. This phenomenon is not expected to end in the near term, given the reality of the opposition parties. The development of an alternative for the LDP would take a long time. Moreover, this remains dependent on many other conditions related to the relationship between the LDP and both the bureaucracy and the business sector, which is a historical relationship that guarantees the existence of a kind of tacit alliance between the party leaders and those two important sectors, thus ensuring the maintenance of the party's dominance over the Japanese political system.


Despite Shinzo Abe's sudden exit from political life and the important role he played within the right-wing movement in Japan, no fundamental changes are likely to take place following this development as competition is confined to two symbols of the right-wing, namely Shigeru Ishiba and Yoshihide Suga. The only expected difference could be that if Ishiba succeeds, there would be more focus on security issues, and a greater priority would be given to the goal of reviewing the post-World War II legacy. If Suga succeeds, priority would be given to economic issues without neglecting the fundamental issues of the right trend. In either case, there would be no significant change in the nature of Japanese foreign policy or in the country’s party map, where the dominance of the LDP is likely to continue.


[1] For a review of the Constitution of Japan and Article 9 thereof, see: https://japan.kantei.go.jp/constitution_and_government_of_japan/constitution_e.html

[2] REIJI YOSHIDA AND MIZUHO AOKI, “Diet enacts security laws, marking Japan's departure from pacifism,” The Japan Times, Sep 19, 2015. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/09/19/national/politics-diplomacy/diet-enacts-security-laws-marking-japans-departure-from-pacifism-2/

[3] Chester Dawson, “In Japan, Provocative Case for Staying Nuclear… Some Say Bombs' Potential as Deterrent Argues for Keeping Power Plants Online,” The Wall Street Journal, October 28, 2011. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970203658804576638392537430156  

[4] "Japan should be able to build nuclear weapons: ex-LDP Secretary-General Ishiba," The Japan Times, 6 November 2017. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/11/06/national/japan-able-build-nuclear-weapons-ex-ldp-secretary-general-ishiba/

[5] “Japan Claims Right to Preemptive Strike on N. Korea,” The Chosunilbo, April 15, 2013. http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2013/04/15/2013041501034.html

[6] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on the result of the study on the issue of comfort women," August 4, 1993. https://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/women/fund/state9308.html

[7] Doubts grow in LDP over Fumio Kishida's ability to succeed Abe," The Japan Times, 20 July 2020. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/07/20/national/politics-diplomacy/ldp-fumio-kishida-shinzo-abe/


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