Japan's leader Fumio Kishida tries to honour Abe's legacy, while building his own

Japan PM Fumio Kishida has quietly differentiated himself from his predecessor Shinzo Abe. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (NYTIMES) - Mr Fumio Kishida has spent years trying to emerge from the shadow of Shinzo Abe, former prime minister of Japan who was gunned down at a campaign rally on July 8.

Ever since both were elected in 1993 to the Diet, as Japan's parliament is known, Abe had been the more prominent politician. A charismatic presence, he outshone Mr Kishida, a party stalwart who can be so stiff that a schoolgirl recently asked him about the last time he truly laughed. His answer: whenever his beloved baseball team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, wins.

After Mr Kishida finally - on the second try - ascended to the prime minister's office, Abe continued to niggle him from the sidelines. He floated controversial ideas, such as a proposal that Japan host US nuclear weapons, and warned that financial markets might see Mr Kishida's economic policies as "socialist" and react badly to them.

Now, after the assassination, Mr Kishida, 64, is trying to honour Abe while proving that he can set himself apart from the legacy of Japan's longest-serving prime minister.

"A couple of years ago, Kishida was almost considered as one who had no chance to become prime minister," said Dr Mikitaka Masuyama, a professor of political science at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. Now, he said, "we have to figure out whether Kishida really has the ability and leadership qualities to run the government and control" his Liberal Democratic Party.

The looming question for Mr Kishida is how he will spend his political capital, bolstered by a victory in elections to the Upper House of Parliament a week ago. The prime minister had already indicated that he would move to enact Abe's most cherished goals, including a revision of the pacifist clause in the constitution that renounces war, as well as an increase in defence spending.

Last week, Mr Kishida was quick to say he would take up the "difficult issues" that Abe had "poured his passion into" but "couldn't accomplish". He promised to "drastically enhance Japan's defence capabilities within five years".

As much as Abe's death, geopolitical circumstances will dictate Mr Kishida's choices. The war in Ukraine and rising military threats from China and North Korea have prompted Mr Kishida, who had previously cast himself as a liberal-leaning, dovish member of the Liberal Democrats, to take on a more hawkish mantle.

Given the regional pressures, "raising defence spending is not optional anymore for Tokyo," said Dr Titli Basu, an associate fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.

Most Japanese recognise those threats: In polls, a majority backs increasing the defence budget. And although the public once vociferously opposed revising the pacifist constitution, surveys in the spring indicated that a majority would now consider it.

Mr Kishida is "saying things that in the past, whoever said it would have had political division," said Mr Rahm Emanuel, US ambassador to Japan. "There is consensus-building that is partly to his credit and partly to events."

In the nine months since the party chose Mr Kishida as prime minister, he has steadily extended the unstinting diplomacy that was a hallmark of Abe's reign.

He has also quietly differentiated himself from his predecessor.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, Mr Kishida strongly condemned Russia's actions without hesitation and swiftly enacted sanctions. Eight years earlier, Abe, keen to foster a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, had dragged his feet on imposing sanctions after Russia annexed Crimea.

Since October, Mr Kishida has visited 11 countries. Last month, he became the first Japanese prime minister to attend a Nato meeting. In May, when Mr Kishida visited Vietnam, one of a handful of countries that had voted against a United Nations resolution to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, he and Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh agreed on the importance of an immediate cease-fire in Ukraine, and Mr Chinh announced US$500,000 (S$699,000) in humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

Like Abe, Mr Kishida came to politics as the son and grandson of members of parliament.

As young lawmakers who entered the Lower House in the same year, Mr Kishida and Abe sometimes worked as a pair. Mr Shinobu Konno, a political commentator, recently recalled on ANN News, a Japanese television network, that the two travelled to Taiwan on a diplomatic mission in 1997, with Abe as the head of the group and Mr Kishida as his deputy.

"Mr Kishida was a strong drinker but a boring talker," Mr Konno said. "And Mr Abe was a good talker but not a strong drinker, so they divided their responsibilities. Mr Kishida was in charge of drinking and would compete with the stronger Taiwanese drinkers, while Mr. Abe was in charge of talking and getting everyone excited."

During Abe's brief first stint as prime minister from 2006-07, Mr Kishida served as state minister in charge of Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs. After Abe returned to power in 2012, he appointed his old friend as foreign minister, a post that Mr Kishida would hold longer than anyone else in Japan's post-World War II history.

But when Abe resigned in 2020, he threw his weight behind another man, Mr Yoshihide Suga, to succeed him. Mr Suga beat Mr Kishida by a party vote of nearly 4-1.

A year later, after Mr Suga was forced to resign and Mr Kishida ran again for the party leadership, Abe, who led the LDP's largest and most right-leaning faction in parliament, hand-picked a different successor. Only after Ms Sanae Takaichi failed to get enough votes in a first round of party voting did Abe support Mr Kishida, the eventual victor.

Mr Kishida started out by trying to distinguish himself from Abe, offering a "new capitalism" as a departure from Abe's well-known economic platform, dubbed "Abenomics". Mr Kishida said he wanted to narrow income inequality and proposed raising some taxes.

He has since ratcheted back that rhetoric, and he has seemed to embrace Abe's calls for doubling defence spending and amending the constitution.

Still, analysts see glimmers of Mr Kishida trying to be his own man.

Giving the keynote speech last month at a security forum hosted by Singapore, he noted that Germany had announced it would raise its defence budget to 2 per cent of its annual economic output - a goal that Abe had sought for Japan. But Mr Kishida did not cite a numerical target, instead pledging a "substantial increase".

What's more, he said Japan would "proceed within the scope of our constitution".

Ms Yuki Tatsumi, director of the Japan Programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington, DC, said she saw Mr Kishida as "pushing back on some of the stuff that Abe was pushing on him in the court of public opinion".

As recently as last Thursday (July 14), Mr Kishida, referring to defence spending, said that "we must be realistic and concrete in our discussions but at the same time, not be numbers-oriented".

Economic reality may undercut the possibility of setting drastic targets. With inflation rising, the yen depreciating, coronavirus infections increasing and, in the longer term, the population ageing and the birthrate falling, Mr Kishida may find he doesn't have the money to pay for all government priorities.

Japan's traditional pace of change may be on Mr Kishida's side. Consensus-building is valued, and incremental progress - rather than radical transformation - is the norm.

"It has been a slow evolution over time where the increasing chipping away by North Korea and China at Japanese security has increased awareness in the public and the politicians that more needs to be done," said Dr Jeffrey Hornung, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp specialising in Japanese security and foreign policy. "As long as Kishida continues to go slow and steady, I do think he'll be OK."

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