Fumio Kishida sworn in as Japan's 100th prime minister, to hold general election on Oct 31

Lawmakers applauding Mr Fumio Kishida (standing) after he was elected as Japan's new prime minister in Tokyo on Oct 4, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Hours after being sworn in by Parliament to fist bumps and thunderous applause on Monday (Oct 4), Japan's new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he will call a general election on Oct 31.

The Diet will be dissolved at the end of an extraordinary session on Oct 14 for the election, just a week before four-year Lower House lawmaker terms expire on Oct 21.

Nomination Day will be on Oct 19. Mr Kishida, 64, spelt out the timeline at his first news conference since becoming Japan's 100th prime minister.

Many, including those within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), had expected the election only in early November, with Mr Kishida to attend the Group of 20 (G-20) leaders' summit in Rome on Oct 30 and 31 in what would have been his international debut as Japan's leader.

But he said that he would skip the summit, attending remotely where possible instead. He stressed that his priority was to quickly cement a public mandate over the direction he had spelt out for Japan's post-pandemic recovery and beyond.

"The Covid-19 situation is easing for the moment, but the future remains unclear and many people in the nation still have huge concerns," Mr Kishida said. "We need drastic Covid-19 measures and a new economic package but, to do this, I want to first ask for the voters' trust."

Unlike his predecessor, Mr Yoshihide Suga, who stepped down on Monday after 384 days in office after being criticised for being too optimistic over Covid-19, Mr Kishida said it was his government's task to "prepare for the worst".

There were 602 new cases nationwide on Monday, with just 87 infections in Tokyo, the first time the capital has recorded under 100 daily new infections since Nov 2 last year.

Beyond Covid-19 recovery, Mr Kishida also cited such priorities as achieving fairer wealth distribution, ensuring economic security against strategic risks like supply chains, promoting digitisation, and stemming the fertility crisis.

On Monday, he unveiled his Cabinet team of 20 ministers in a major shake-up with as many as 13 rookie ministers, as he sought to shed Mr Suga's colours.

Only two kept their posts - Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, 65, and Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi, 62 - in what observers saw as a sign of continuity in Japan's foreign policy.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi (left) and Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi. PHOTOS: EPA-EFE, REUTERS

Mr Kishida said he would continue to strengthen Japan's strategic partnerships to achieve the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision while reserving some of his toughest remarks for China, which he said was trying to change the rules-based order by force and had "questionable" human rights practices.

He also cast doubt on China's bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), saying that it was unclear if Beijing could meet the trade deal's high standards.

In a new Cabinet portfolio likely aimed at China, junior lawmaker Takayuki Kobayashi, 46,was named Minister of Economic Security. Mr Kobayashi, who has been elected three times, is a Harvard alumnus and former finance ministry bureaucrat with experience working at the Japanese embassy in Washington DC.

The ministers who front Japan's Covid-19 countermeasures have all been replaced, with Ms Noriko Horiuchi, 55, succeeding Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) election runner-up Taro Kono as vaccination minister with 60.9 per cent of the Japanese population having been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 as of Monday.

He also tapped LDP election rival Seiko Noda, 61, to his Cabinet. Ms Noda, who had advocated policies to foster a better environment for child-rearing, will be tasked with launching a Children's Agency.

Ms Seiko Noda was named minister-in-charge of measures against declining birthrate in Japan on Oct 4, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

World leaders offered their felicitations to Mr Kishida. United States President Joe Biden said he hoped the two allies would build on their "historic partnership".

Chinese President Xi Jinping said that China and Japan were close neighbours which must prioritise "friendly and cooperative relations (that are) conducive to peace, stability and prosperity in Asia and the world". The two nations mark 50 years of diplomatic ties next year amid a diplomatic chill.

Japan's ties with South Korea are also in a deep freeze over historical issues, but South Korean President Moon Jae-in's office said on Monday that Seoul hopes the two countries could "set an example for cooperation".

Others like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau all said in their congratulatory messages that they looked forward to strengthening their respective countries' strategic partnerships with Japan.

Mr Kishida was elected as prime minister by Diet lawmakers in a session that began at 1pm (12pm in Singapore).

In the Lower House, where 460 out of 465 seats are filled, the LDP has the majority with 275 lawmakers, while coalition partner Komeito has 29 seats. Mr Kishida won 311 ballots - far more than the 124 secured by leader of the opposition Yukio Edano.

In the Upper House, where 242 out of 245 seats are filled, the LDP has 111 seats and the Komeito 28. Mr Kishida won 141 ballots, far more than the 65 for Mr Edano.

Mr Suga and his Cabinet resigned en masse on Monday morning to pave the way for the leadership change.

Mr Suga, who was offered a bouquet of flowers as he was seen off at the Prime Minister's Office by about 150 staff members, has spent the bulk of his tenure battling the Covid-19 pandemic.

He could have - but did not - call a snap election after he succeeded Mr Shinzo Abe as prime minister in September last year, preferring instead to prove his worth through results.

Yet, his legacy, which includes overseeing the successful Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, setting ambitious climate targets, and launching a new Digital Agency, has been clouded by the three Covid-19 waves and three states of emergency declared under his watch.

While he managed to lift the declaration nationwide last week in one of his final acts in office - with no part of Japan under an emergency for the first time in six months - this proved to be too little too late.

"There were many unknowns in the fight against Covid-19, but my Cabinet was able to work as one to accelerate vaccinations," he said, as he recounted his time as Prime Minister.

"With the 2050 carbon neutral target, as well as the launch of the Digital Agency, the government has made a strong statement for new drivers of growth."

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