Kishida will need to defy the odds of Japanese political longevity

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Over the past few days, various Tokyo friends have described — or acted on — a sudden craving for okonomiyaki. In particular, they want the Hiroshima-style version of the savoury pancake, which has a workaday base of noodles, a humble egg coronet and gargantuan social media fame after Yuko Kishida made one for dinner last Wednesday.

She did so in the hours that followed her husband, Fumio, winning the leadership race of the ruling Liberal Democratic party. That means he will succeed Yoshihide Suga as prime minister of Japan: a country where ordinary people enjoy one of the world’s highest life expectancies, but prime ministers last a postwar average of about two years — about the same lifespan as a western mosquitofish. Few considerations of a new PM, says the chair of one of Japan’s largest companies, matter more than their chances of beating these odds.

For all the hopes of a genuine scrap for the top position or even a generational shift of power, Kishida’s victory was a spectacle scripted, performed and cranked across screens by traditional LDP machine politics. It is a show that has been running on a more or less constant loop since 1955. The photo of the lovingly prepared okonomiyaki was, in this cynical context, the subliminal cut edited into the reel to set Japan involuntarily slavering over the relatability of its latest helmsman. That folksy glow may still be warm, the LDP calculates, when the country votes in lower house parliamentary elections this year.

As usual with changes at the top of one of the world’s biggest economies and financial markets, there is a broad scramble to ascertain what it will mean for business, what cherished policies Kishida is most likely to push (while he can), what arcing macro narratives he might evoke and what he will do for outside perceptions of an equity market dependent on the sentiment of foreigners. Those questions will intensify this week once the new cabinet is named. The initial focus of markets, say analysts, will be how a leader encircled by choice with finance bureaucrats will formulate a promised stimulus package worth tens of trillions of yen and handle a post-Covid reopening.

But already, say a number of senior executives, businesses are holding internal discussions about what else a Kishida administration might try. The incoming PM appears serious about pressuring or incentivising corporate Japan to raise wages, which could set him on a collision course with the Keidanren business lobby. His non-okonomiyaki social media posts have been about introducing revisions to quarterly reporting rules that could make them optional, not mandatory. He has also proposed additional changes to the corporate governance code that would encourage companies to focus on broad stakeholder interests, rather than narrow ones.

Businesses may welcome those changes; investors would see them as an attempt to roll back the pro-governance reform momentum of the past six years. Kishida has also talked about a new style of capitalism and a rejection of the neoliberal policies Japan adopted in the mid-2000s. One prominent CEO told me Kishida’s musing on wealth redistribution “gives me the chills”.

But business leaders ask themselves how much of this is relevant if Kishida comes with no obvious weaponry with which to beat the stats? And are there, at this point, any good signifiers of a leader’s potential longevity when a medium-term corporate strategy can, according to the averages, expect at least two changes of prime minister before it is completed?

Part of the problem lies with Shinzo Abe, the kingmaker behind Kishida’s victory who was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister when he stepped down in 2020 with a record 3,186 days in office. As well as skewing the overall average higher, Abe’s longevity managed to persuade the corporate, bureaucratic, political and diplomatic spheres that, after many years, there was such a thing as a Japanese PM who could outlive a pet mosquitofish. It was, say inhabitants of those four spheres, a transformative incumbency that demanded new assumptions about how far a given PM’s plans and pledges should be expected to have relevance.

Suga’s single year in charge, given the oddities of the pandemic, might be taken as an anomaly. The mechanism by which Kishida was installed suggests strongly that the old LDP ways are back, and with them the propensity for ephemeral leaders. Kishida, then, is the true test of whether Abe put the political longevity averages on a rising trajectory. If not, we have only to wait until 2023 to find out what the next PM’s favourite Instagram-ready, man-of-the-people food is.

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