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Fumio Kishida Will Be Japan's Next Prime Minister


Japan's ruling party has picked a new leader who is expected to become the country's prime minister next week. The new leader won out over the previous front-runner in the polls, but we're going to hear from NPR's Anthony Kuhn who reports that in Japan, the most popular politician is not always the winner. Anthony, so how does that work? If he isn't the most popular, how does he win? And actually, who is he?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: His name is Fumio Kishida. He's 64 years old. He was a former foreign minister, and he is known as a sort of a steady hand, a guy who is a consensus candidate and who builds consensuses and who tries to avoid controversy. And interestingly, he was up against a guy who's sort of the opposite - a political maverick who's known to shake things up and be very outspoken, a vaccine minister named Taro Kono. There were also two female candidates who Kishida beat out.

And today's vote was for the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP. And then parliament is going to choose the next prime minister next week. And because the LDP has a majority in parliament, the president of the ruling party basically has a lock on that job. So basically, Kishida was the choice of the party insiders and the lawmakers in today's vote.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Now, the outgoing prime minister he's replacing was unpopular because of how he handled the COVID response. How will his successor do things a little differently?

KUHN: Well, Yoshihide Suga, the outgoing prime minister, lasted less than a year in the job. And he become very - became very unpopular because people felt he was slow in imposing states of emergency during the pandemic. He was slow in buying vaccines for Japan. He insisted on holding the Olympics in the middle of the pandemic, which was very unpopular. And on top of it all, he was just seen as a very dull and stiff sort of communicator. Now, Japan is holding general elections this fall, and the ruling party was afraid of losing seats in parliament, and they did not want to go into that poll with Suga as their leader, so he was forced to quit.

Now, I spoke to professor Corey Wallace, who's an expert on Japanese politics at Kanagawa University outside Tokyo, and, interestingly, he noted that Kishida is not seen as a great communicator either. But it may not matter as much because the circumstances are now different during - from during Suga's tenure, and the COVID situation is not quite so bad. Let's hear what he said.

COREY WALLACE: Japan really is coming out of the worst part of fighting the pandemic. We can expect some kind of economic recovery. So Kishida being slow and steady may not necessarily be a major issue for the party ahead of the general election.

KUHN: And as he notes, infections are down 90% from their peak in August. And for the first time since April, no region in Japan is under any sort of state of emergency, and about 58% of the population has now been fully vaccinated.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what can Japan and the U.S. expect from his administration?

KUHN: Well, the ruling party, the LDP, is pretty much on the same page with economic policies. Most of the candidates agreed to continue the policies of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wanted stimulus spending, printing more money to jumpstart the economy and fight inflation. They're also in favor of a bigger - stronger alliance with the U.S. But on social policies, Kishida, as you've seen, is more conservative, so there's probably going to be less change there.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul. Anthony, thanks a lot.

KUHN: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.