Fumio Kishida: Japan's ronin turned prime minister-designate

Mr Fumio Kishida is now on the cusp of becoming Japan's 100th prime minister after winning the Liberal Democratic Party election race last week. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - The word "ronin", traditionally used to describe a wandering samurai with no lord, is used in modern Japan to refer to an undergraduate who becomes a "nomad" after failing the entrance exams to his desired university.

Japan's incoming prime minister Fumio Kishida was one such ronin, and was seen as an embarrassment by his family after being rejected three times by the elite University of Tokyo, where his father and other relatives had graduated.

He failed in 1976 and 1977, and in 1978, he took the exam a third time along with that for two other top institutions, Keio and Waseda.

He ended up reading law at Waseda University, an environment that he thought was more in keeping with his temperament unlike Keio University's preppy bourgeoisie image.

The man is now on the cusp of becoming Japan's 100th prime minister after winning the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) election race last week, and will become the eighth Waseda alumnus to take on the top job on Monday (Oct 4).

In his book, Kishida Vision: From Division To Collaboration, Mr Kishida cited his enrolment in Waseda as proof that he was not an elite but has his pulse on the ground.

The 64-year-old former banker turned nine-term lawmaker sees as his "treasure" a wrinkled navy blue notebook that he carries around with him, in which he pens the views of ordinary people.

And yet those whose hearts Mr Kishida has not managed to touch see him as a boring, unapproachable, out-of-touch technocrat of the typical LDP ilk.

Last year, in the race to become LDP president that he eventually lost to Mr Yoshihide Suga, he stoked popular ire by posting on Twitter a photo of himself sitting at a dining table waiting for his meal, with his wife Yuko standing behind him in an apron.

How he navigates the popular opinion game in the run-up to the general election that must be held by next month is anyone's guess, but he continues to dish up snippets of his personal life to his 326,500 followers on Twitter. This is still a fraction of the 2.4 million followers boasted by defeated rival, vaccination minister Taro Kono.

Mr Kishida said his victory dinner last Wednesday was okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) cooked in his native Hiroshima style by his wife.

"I love the okonomiyaki that my wife makes," he wrote, this time to online approval. "It's always the best but today, it was a delicious taste that I'll never forget."

Incoming prime minister Fumio Kishida said his victory dinner was okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) cooked in his native Hiroshima style by his wife. PHOTO: FUMIO KISHIDA/TWITTER

His healthy appetite is matched with a love for liquor. Unlike his teetotaller predecessors Suga and Shinzo Abe, Mr Kishida is a legend for his ability to hold his drink.

This came in handy once when, as foreign minister, he duelled with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to see who can keep a diplomatic conversation going on for longer over copious amounts of vodka and sake.

"If we're drinking, we're friends," Mr Kishida wrote in his book released last year. "A relationship in which both sides can talk candidly is the first step to international peace."

He has also said that his hobby is working out, appearing in television snippets lifting dumbbells and kettlebells at home.

The young Fumio (second from the right, back row, in photo provided by Mr Kishida's Office), at the elementary school he attended in Queens, New York, in 1965. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mr Kishida, who was first elected in 1993, is a dynastic politician whose father Fumitake and grandfather Masaki were both Lower House lawmakers from a ward covering their ancestral home in Hiroshima.

He met his wife, the daughter of a sake brewery owner, through an arranged marriage. They have three sons, with the eldest Shotaro, 30, following in his footsteps by working as his secretary.

Second son Kotaro, 24, is an undergraduate in sports science at Nihon University, and will work in the private sector at a Hiroshima company next year. Details of his third son, who is now 21, are unclear.

Mr Kishida's own political origin story, he wrote in his book, had little to do with how his parents were career politicians.

Instead, it stemmed from an experience in New York where he had lived briefly in the 1960s, when his father was deployed with the Japan External Trade Organisation.

Enrolled in a public school, Mr Kishida had a brush with racial discrimination that stung him so much that it gave him a strong sense of fairness and justice.

His classmates were from diverse ethnic backgrounds, but as an Asian, he was subject to racial discrimination. He remembers strongly a time in 1965, when a white classmate refused to hold his hand despite their teacher's instructions.

He returned to Japan and later enrolled in Kaisei Senior High School, an elite institution that sees more than 100 students qualify for the University of Tokyo each year, and has produced hundreds of top bureaucrats and lawmakers. During his high school years, Mr Kishida was in the baseball team.

Whether it was complacency or sheer hope is unclear, but Mr Kishida had thought that his Kaisei affiliation, combined with his sporting inclinations and the fact that his father was an alumnus, would give him an easy pass into the University of Tokyo.

That would not come to be. After his graduation from Waseda, he worked at the now-defunct Long-Term Credit Bank for five years - half of which he was based at the Tokyo headquarters and half, as an executive at its office in the rural Shikoku region.

He quit in 1987 to enter politics, first as his father's secretary, before running for his father's seat after the older man's death in October 1992.

He won the seat in 1993, joining the cohort of first-time politicians with Mr Abe and two of his LDP election rivals, Ms Sanae Takaichi, 60, and Ms Seiko Noda, 61. He has been re-elected from Hiroshima ever since.

Mr Fumio Kishida, as foreign minister, once duelled with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to see who can keep a diplomatic conversation going on for longer over copious amounts of vodka and sake. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Kishida entered the Cabinet for the first time in a reshuffle in 2007, being Minister-in-charge of Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs.

He later became Japan's longest-serving foreign minister, from 2012 to 2017. He was instrumental in realising then US President Barack Obama's visit to Hiroshima and Mr Abe's reciprocal visit to Pearl Harbour, in what was the first such visits by the sitting leaders of both countries.

In 2015, he played a key role in realising the "final and irreversible" comfort women agreement with South Korea, though this pact appears to be all but futile.

In 2012, he rose to head the LDP faction known as Kochikai, which had produced four other prime ministers: Mr Hayato Ikeda (1960 to 1964), Mr Masayoshi Ohira (1978 to 1980), Mr Zenko Suzuki (1980 to 1982) and Mr Kiichi Miyazawa (1991 to 1993).


Who's in the core LDP team?

Mr Fumio Kishida has shaken up the core team within the LDP. Here are the people he has tapped within the party:

Vice-President: Taro Aso, 81

Mr Aso, who has been Finance Minister since 2012, is expected to cede the portfolio to his brother-in-law Shunichi Suzuki, 68, as he takes on a senior party leadership role.

Secretary-general: Akira Amari, 72

The veteran politician was a former economy minister and had backed Mr Kishida early in his campaign.

Policy research chief: Sanae Takaichi, 60

One of Mr Kishida's three rivals in last week's contest, Ms Takaichi had been backed by former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

General council chief: Tatsuo Fukuda, 54

An unusual pick for a senior position, given that Mr Fukuda has only been elected three times to the Lower House. But he is of strong family pedigree: His father Yasuo was PM from 2007 to 2008, while grandfather Takeo was prime minister from 1976 to 1978 and the namesake of the Fukuda Doctrine that stated that Japan "will be an equal partner to Asean".

Public relations chief: Taro Kono, 58

The appointment is widely seen as a demotion, though Mr Kishida said the rationale was because of Mr Kono's "extraordinary" communication ability and appeal, which have made him Japan's most-followed politician. This, he said, was necessary to complement his own weaknesses in communication.

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