Will Kishida Be Able to Survive the Impact of ‘Resignation Dominoes’?

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Sota Fujii, left, presents Prime Minister Kishida with a shogi board as a gift in return for the Prime Minister’s Commendation

The news that 21-year-old Ryuo titleholder Sota Fujii had become the first shogi player ever to win eight crowns sent joy throughout Japan. After a flurry of congratulations from the political world, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced that he would award the Prime Minister’s Commendation to Fujii.

Shogi is an ancient Japanese brain game in which pieces are arranged on a board divided into 81 sections, likened to a battlefield. Two opposing players take turns moving pieces one at a time. As different pieces have different characteristics, it is said that you can learn the importance of “the right person in the right place” by deciding which piece to move in a given situation.

In Japanese, “the right person in the right place” is a four-kanji idiom pronounced “tekizai tekisho.” It expresses the idea of giving people appropriate positions or assignments according to their abilities. After the opening of the current extraordinary Diet session in October, the term was used many times in Japan’s political circles. That is because three officials appointed in the cabinet reshuffle in September resigned one after another less than two months after the new Cabinet was inaugurated.

A parliamentary secretary for education, culture, sports, science and technology was found to have had an inappropriate relationship with a young woman. A senior vice justice minister promoted the use of paid online advertising prohibited by the Public Offices Election Law. And a senior vice finance minister was delinquent in paying taxes.

The successive resignations of the government officials have been called “resignation dominoes.”

Kishida has repeatedly emphasized that his Cabinet members are appointed according to the principle of “the right people in the right places.” However, in each case, they resigned due to scandals related to matters under the jurisdiction of their offices, drawing heavy criticism from opposition parties. Akira Nagatsuma, chairperson of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan’s Policy Research Committee, described the situation by saying, “Inappropriate personnel are taking on inappropriate duties.” In addition, new scandals involving other Cabinet officials have also emerged, and other opposition party officials say that the Cabinet is already in “a state of class collapse.”

Initially, the reshuffle in September was aimed at increasing the approval rating of the Cabinet in anticipation of a dissolution of the House of Representatives, to be followed by a general election. However, fiascos such as the resignation dominoes reverberated, and a nationwide Yomiuri Shimbun poll in mid-November showed that the Cabinet’s approval rating had fallen to 24%, the lowest since its inauguration in October 2021. This is also the lowest figure since the LDP returned to power in December 2012. Kishida himself has brought about a crisis that prevents him from calling a general election by the end of the year.

Past cabinets have devised ways to avoid appointing members who have been involved in scandals by conducting background checks called “frisks” on Diet members before making appointments, and after examining political funds and past statements. Although frisks were conducted in the latest appointments, there were cases in which even scandals that were well-known in the lawmakers’ local communities were overlooked. It has thus been said that the Prime Minister’s Office is lax in its crisis management.

Isao Iijima, who served as parliamentary secretary in the Cabinet of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, which boasted a long-term government, told The Yomiuri Shimbun that “frisking ministerial candidates was one of the hardest jobs as a secretary.”

He noted, “If we were going to put the right people in the right places, we needed to thoroughly investigate what ministerial candidates had publicly said in the past about the Cabinet’s promises and policies.” Political funds were also scrutinized, and no member of the long-lived Koizumi Cabinet resigned due to allegations over political funding. Iijima said that the thorough frisks prevented harm to the administration, and as a result, it was able to build a long-term government.

Successive administrations have taken pains to avoid resignation dominoes because they reduce a cabinet’s approval rating and make it difficult to run the government. The first administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which was inaugurated in September 2006, collapsed in just a year, after the defense minister and the agriculture minister resigned. The Liberal Democratic Party was defeated in the 2007 House of Councillors election, and Abe himself resigned due to illness.

Later, the administration of Prime Minister Taro Aso, which was inaugurated in September 2008, also saw the resignation of the land, transport and tourism minister, followed by the resignation of two other cabinet officials. A “drag Aso down from power” movement occurred within the ruling party, calling for Aso to resign ahead of the lower house election. Aso dissolved the House of Representatives and faced a general election, but was defeated, leading to a change of government to the Democratic Party of Japan.

The Kishida administration had already experienced a run of resignation dominoes from October to December last year, in which four cabinet ministers quit. It can be said that the Kishida administration, which has continued to have low approval ratings due to issues surrounding the Unification Church and the effect of resignation dominos since the inauguration of the administration, is at a critical juncture as to whether it will be able to overcome the second run of resignation dominos and continue to govern in a stable manner.

On Nov. 13, the very day Kishida decided to dismiss the senior vice finance minister, he invited shogi champ Fujii to the Prime Minister’s Office and presented him with the Prime Minister’s Commendation. In return, Fujii presented Kishida with a shogi board. Fujii, who is also known for his excellent facility with words, wrote the four-kanji idiom “ungai soten” in calligraphy on the box containing the board. Fujii explained why he chose this phrase, saying, “It means that there is a blue sky above the clouds, and that by making an effort to further improve your skills, you will be able to see different scenery than before.”

In line with these words from the “genius of the Reiwa era,” will Kishida be able to see the blue sky above the clouds that are now heavily covering the administration?

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Yukiko Ishikawa

Ishikawa is a staff writer in the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.