Kishida’s first-year report card / Suga, Nikai cast cold eye on Kishida Cabinet

Yomiuri Shimbun file photos
Clockwise from top left: Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the state funeral of Shinzo Abe at Nippon Budokan hall in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Sept. 27; former Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai; Hiroshi Moriyama, the LDP’s Election Strategy Committee chairperson; People arrive at Kansai Airport in Osaka on Sept. 7.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet has passed the first anniversary of its inauguration with its approval rating on the decline. This series examines how Kishida’s political style so far has affected the handling of key issues and what the future holds for his administration.


Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was in an unusually good mood at dinner on the evening of Sept. 29.

“Somehow, we have to increase the number of foreign visitors to Japan,” he said.

The 73-year-old Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker was enjoying sushi with former Chiba Gov. Kensaku Morita, 72 — an old acquaintance — and executives from the business world at a Tokyo restaurant. Suga reportedly spoke passionately about the policies he had focused on during his 2020-21 tenure as the nation’s leader.

The conversation also touched upon former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s state funeral, which had taken place two days earlier. Suga, who delivered a eulogy on behalf of Abe’s friends, shared a story about asking an announcer he knew for advice on how to speak effectively. The eulogy, which reflected the depth of the bond between Abe and Suga, was well received. It was also marked by applause — unusual for a funeral.

“It was a wonderful eulogy, and many people are saying, ‘Prime Minister Suga’s one year in office was amazing.’” Morita told Suga. “Many people have high expectations for you.”

Morita encouraged Suga to harness the momentum from his speech to attempt a comeback as prime minister, but Suga merely responded with a smile saying, “No, no,” and offered no more on the matter.

Suga has not held any key positions within the LDP or the Cabinet since Kishida’s Cabinet was inaugurated last October, and he has placed himself in a non-mainstream group. Suga does not belong to a faction but has a party base founded on connections with Ganesha no Kai, a group of LDP members of the House of Representatives with no factional affiliation. He also has close ties with a similar group of LDP members in the House of Councillors, as well as former LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, 83, and Hiroshi Moriyama, 77, the chairman of the party’s Election Strategy Committee.

Nikai and Moriyama were early supporters of Suga in the party’s presidential election in 2020 and played key roles in his installation as premier. Since then, the three men have met regularly and remain staunch allies.

Public criticism

Suga and Nikai cast a cold eye on Kishida’s leadership. “There’s no sense of urgency within the administration,” Nikai often says. Suga, meanwhile, voiced dissatisfaction with the timing of the government’s plan, introduced on Tuesday, to drastically ease COVID-related border control measures, saying, “[The plan] should have been rolled out two weeks earlier.”

There has long been friction between Suga and Kishida. During his roughly one year in office, Suga did not assign any key post to the man who is now prime minister.

When Kishida, 65, announced his candidacy for party president at a press conference in August last year, he said, “The LDP, which is supposed to be a national party, isn’t listening to the people,” effectively taking a shot at then Prime Minister Suga and then LDP Secretary General Nikai, who came under fire from the public due to negative perceptions of their handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Kishida’s desire to place term limits on party executives to “prevent a concentration of power and inertia” was a clear swipe at Nikai, who had served as secretary general for more than five years — a record tenure within the party.

Waiting for a chance

Even as headwinds buffet the Kishida Cabinet and its approval rating falls, Suga and Nikai remain cautious about overtly criticizing the administration. At one point, Suga had weighed the idea of launching a study group that he would head, but abandoned the idea after Abe’s death in July.

Observers say the reasons for a lack of movement against Kishida among non-mainstream groups include the appointment of Moriyama — who occupies an important position within one such group — to a party leadership post as head of its election campaign committee, and the fact that there are still about three years to go before both the expiration of lower house members’ terms and the holding of the next upper house election.

Previously, moves within the party to topple the prime minister and party president were usually motivated by a sense of crisis among lawmakers who felt their chance of winning a Diet seat in the next election was in jeopardy.

A senior member of the Nikai faction said: “If the headwinds don’t abate as the election approaches, we’ll do whatever it takes to bring the administration down. For now, we’ll just see what they do.” The member added that this was a time to lie low and wait for a chance.

Kishida is aware of how things are, having visited Suga’s office in the lower house building every two or three months since the start of the year.

Yet, Kishida did not consider Suga for a key post when he reshuffled the Cabinet and appointed new party leaders in August, much to the chagrin of those who had sought such a move.

While working on his personnel-appointment plans, Kishida reportedly heard a variety of opinions, such as “Suga should be given a key post, thereby helping establish a whole-party approach,” and “If Suga get his hands on power now, we’ll be in serious trouble.”

Kishida told those around him, “I didn’t appoint Suga this time around,” hinting at a possible collaboration in the future.

Keeping a certain distance from the non-mainstream groups, then approaching them step by step. If Kishida is keen to stay in office long-term, it will be contingent upon his ability to leverage this kind of cunning political skill.