New Year’s conversation between Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chugoku Shimbun President Tetsuya Okahata

Psychological pressure more than imagined

First decision not final; willing to change by responding to public opinion

by Seiji Shitakubo and Junya Kuchimoto, Staff Writers

Fumio Kishida, Japan’s first prime minister elected from the A-bombed city of Hiroshima (representing Hiroshima Prefecture’s District No. 1), became the 100th person to take the office in the history of Japanese constitutional government. He won reelection to the House of Representatives (lower house of the Diet) soon after taking office and solidified the foundation for his administration, all before entering the new year. How will Prime Minister Kishida add his own imprint to the office in 2022? In a dialogue with Tetsuya Okahata, president of the Chugoku Shimbun, Mr. Kishida shared his passion for the fight to eliminate nuclear weapons, which he has declared to be his life’s work, his heavy responsibility to steer national politics, and his mission to solve the issue of money in politics.

First prime minister from the A-bombed city

On January 4, three months will have passed since you were elected prime minister in the plenary sessions of the House of Councilors (upper house of the Diet) and the House of Representatives (lower house) on October 4, 2021. How do you assess your own performance as prime minister to this point?
I think it’s still too early to assess my results, but August 26, 2021, the date I announced I would run in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s presidential election, was a major milestone in my political career. I have experienced great turbulence ever since that day.

At the time of the LDP presidential election, both the LDP and Japan’s politics were in critical condition. I think the presidential election had great meaning because it provided the public with an opportunity to reconsider the nature of the LDP. I won the election, becoming the 100th prime minister of Japan. I dissolved the lower house of the Diet only ten days after taking office, the shortest period in our history.

Regarding the lower house dissolution and the general election, the official announcement of the election was made on October 19, 2021, with voting beginning on October 31. The key points at debate in the election were the nation’s COVID-19 countermeasures and future economic policies.
Most of the media predicted that the LDP would lose the lower house elections. If that had really happened, I would have been the prime minister with the shortest term served in our history. Fortunately, the LDP was able to win the absolute majority (261 seats), which enabled our party to lead business in the Diet. As a result, I became the 101st prime minister in Japan, a role in which I continue to serve now.

With your approval rating relatively high, the Kishida administration seems to be off to a good start.
Since taking office, I’ve been feeling that prime minister is a tough job both schedule-wise and physically. On top of that, I need to make final decisions on my own and therefore bear a heavy responsibility for all the consequences of my decisions. Such psychological pressure is more than I had imagined it would be. Amid such stress on my mind and body, I am celebrating the new year.

“Listening skills” and COVID-19 pandemic

You have mentioned listening skills as being your strength. Have you considered as a lesson the public criticism that preceding administrations took an authoritarian approach?
The prime minister is forced to make many different decisions. I believe the important thing is the yardstick I use for making those decisions. To come right to the point, the yardstick must be about whether or not the decision will work for the public. Even when things seem decided one time, though, sometimes any such decision must be changed in accordance with changing circumstances and public opinion. If I feel the need to take a flexible approach, I do so without hesitation. The first decision isn’t necessarily the final one.

Because I consider listening skills to be important, I am constantly forced by others to make decisions. In that sense, I am constantly dealing with heavy pressure. I want to continue to embrace that attitude.

Regarding the policy of providing 100,000 yen for children aged 18 or younger as part of the COVID-19 economic package, the government initially announced the benefit to be provided half in cash and half in coupons, but later also agreed to the option of paying 100% of the amount in cash.
With the philosophy I just explained, I dealt with the policy of providing 100,000 yen for children. It doesn’t mean that the government changed its mind; it simply added another option. Some people would label it a lack of principles, but I took a practical approach by being willing to listen to others. I feel that was the correct approach for that kind of decision.

NPT Review Conference and TPNW

You were elected from Hiroshima and lost relatives in the atomic bombing, so you have called the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons your life’s work. What kind of results will you seek at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, scheduled to be held in New York City?
The NPT is a crucial framework given the fact that both nuclear and non-nuclear nations have joined. I attended the last NPT review conference in 2015 as Japan’s foreign minister but was disappointed by the conference’s failure to ultimately result in adoption of a final document. The goal for the conference this time is to explore points on which the participants can agree at a minimum to ensure that a final document can be formulated. With that, I hope our efforts will lead to the next step.

In the last meeting, the debate on the concept of the Middle-East Non-Nuclear Zone (assuming denuclearization of Israel) was the final obstacle that got in the way of the agreement. We have to consider where the limit lies for coming to a mutual agreement with nuclear nations.

What stance will you take regarding the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) during the review conference? Do you think the final document will include the term TPNW?
The TPNW is an extraordinarily important off-ramp treaty for pursuing a world without nuclear weapons. We should think about how we can connect the NPT right in front of us to that off-ramp in the form of the TPNW. The final document we hope can be adopted in the upcoming conference will be the first step toward that end.

The world has paid close attention to what awareness the Japan prime minister from Hiroshima has about this issue.
Well, first we have to think about what is realistic after we take that first step. We also have the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) even before the NPT deliberations. The treaty seems not to have attracted enough attention, but the CTBT discussions already took place, and we have continued to make efforts to have it enter into force by establishing a preparatory commission for the CTBT. Because of the enactment of the TPNW, I think people might be forgetting the efforts made for the CTBT.

There have been deliberations about the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). So long as nuclear disarmament is addressed on a nation-by-nation level, a pragmatic outcome is not possible. The idea behind the FMCT is to try to control nuclear development on an international level by managing the substances, such as highly enriched uranium, used as materials for nuclear weapons. The negotiations on this treaty, though, have also long stalled.

Our predecessors have developed a variety of realistic frameworks to this point in time, but I think people have jumped right into focusing on the ideal scenario while forgetting to deliberate on how to bridge the gap between the reality and the ideal state of things. Building a relationship with the United States is the very foundation for considering how to connect our reality to the TPNW.

You appear to want to visit the United States to talk with President Joe Biden in person as soon as possible.
Fortunately, Mr. Biden mentioned in speeches during his presidential campaign that he would pursue a world without nuclear weapons. Building a relationship of trust and discussing how to proceed toward the ideal and how to have the United States engaged are the starting point of everything.

As the First Meeting of State Parties to the TPNW is coming up in March 2022, some people are demanding that Japan participate in the meeting as an observer.
Nuclear nations have rejected the TPNW, arguing it isn’t realistic. As the only nation to have suffered an atomic bombing during wartime, Japan has a role to play in convincing nuclear powers about what needs to be done to move ahead together toward the ideal.

How will he go about leaving his imprint on the office of prime minister? Vows to continue holding a torch toward the realization of a nuclear-free world and to work on efforts to reform the LDP regarding the issue of “money in politics”
One idea might be to participate in the conference as soon as possible as an observer to pursue the ideal I am referring to. I’m concerned, though, that even were we to do so nothing would change in reality. I have been calling for us to reconsider this issue.

So, you aren’t thinking about the option of participating in the conference as an observer?
As of now, no, I am not.

Hiroshima’s Mayor Kazumi Matsui and others have said they would like you to make every last effort to do so.
Debate on the TPNW will continue. I would like to make efforts and seek a path whereby both nuclear and non-nuclear nations can connect with each other. I’m not sure if we can reach that point by this coming March. I will never deny that the possibility exists, but in reality I don’t think things will work out that smoothly.

Hiroshima’s campaign to host G7 summit

To play the role of bridge between nuclear nations and non-nuclear nations, what do you think about the idea of hosting the 2023 summit meeting of the G7 (G7 summit, attended by the Group of Seven industrialized nations), for which Japan is to serve as chair, in the A-bombed city of Hiroshima?
In 2016, when Barack Obama visited Hiroshima as the first sitting U.S. president to do so, I conveyed how it would be meaningful for world political leaders to visit the A-bombed city and grasp firsthand the reality of the destruction wrought by the atomic bombing for the aim of trying to achieve a world without nuclear weapons. In that regard, I think it makes sense that Hiroshima Prefecture and City have announced their bid to host the G7 summit in Hiroshima.

The summit, though, is a forum for discussion of numerous issues in the world today. The issues of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation are major topics for sure, but a wide range of themes, from climate change and the global economy to security issues, will be discussed there. Besides Hiroshima, Fukuoka Prefecture and City as well as Aichi Prefecture and its capital of Nagoya City have also expressed their bids to host the summit. A decision on the summit venue must be made after consideration is made regarding each city’s ideas about the event. We plan to focus in on the candidate site by the time the next summit is held in Germany in June 2022. At this point, though, nothing has been decided.

I hope to witness you and the leaders from nuclear armed nations meeting face to face within the confines of Hiroshima.
Regardless of the decision of the summit host city, it is absolutely clear that I will continue to hold a torch toward realization of the ideal of a world without nuclear weapons.

Kawai vote buying scandal

Regarding the large-scale vote buying scandal in the 2019 upper house elections in Hiroshima Prefecture’s electoral districts, the convictions of both Katsuyuki Kawai, former lower house member, and his wife Anri, former upper house member, were decided. The LDP headquarters, which provided 150 million yen to the couple, has released a report concluding that money from the party wasn’t used for vote buying. You have signaled an end to the issue, but many citizens in Hiroshima Prefecture aren’t convinced that everything is settled. Do you have the will to investigate the case again?
It’s important to answer all the various questions, but we have to map out the points of debate clearly. Merely saying it is suspicious because things aren’t completely convincing won’t help restore public trust in politics. The key is whether the money officially provided by LDP headquarters was or was not used for buying votes. Based on the materials returned from the prosecution’s office, certified public accountants and attorneys created a report about the matter that they submitted to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, among others. Anyone can access and peruse the details of that report.

The background behind how the LDP provided the couple with 150 million yen is not clear. Kensei Mizote, the veteran, former Kishida faction Diet member who was defeated by Ms. Kawai in the election, received 15.0 million yen, one-tenth the amount provided to her. Doubt also remains about whether the 28.71 million yen the couple used for buying votes was provided by the inner circle of the previous administration.
The LDP allocates resources for winning elections in a focused way to the campaign office of the candidate running in a competitive constituency. This is a typical tactic the party has adopted over a long period of time.

I also have my own ideas about such unfairness in the provision of said resources. However, the LDP leadership at the time (such as LDP President Shinzo Abe and Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai) requested that the money be allocated to Ms. Kawai based on formal procedures, leading to it being provided to her campaign office. The point is whether or not the party leadership, which made such decisions, is trustworthy from the public’s perspective. The LDP is not trusted. That’s precisely why I called for reform of our party during the LDP presidential election campaign.

Certainly, your pledge of designating the term of LDP executives, excluding for the president, as one year and limiting the maximum period of service to three consecutive terms was one of the reasons for your victory in the party’s presidential election.
The LDP shouldn’t allow power to concentrate in a handful of people and force things to be decided simply through momentum. I have argued that such instances of scandal will be repeated unless we try to restore LDP’s governance by inclusion a variety of people including those outside the party and by verification of the party’s operations. Under the leadership of Toshimitsu Motegi, LDP’s current secretary general, debate about the party’s efforts at reform have begun. We have to make utmost efforts to restore trust and to also think about the future.

Criticism increased over the fact that Mr. and Ms. Kawai didn’t step down but continued to receive salaries even after facing criminal prosecution. Revisions of the law regarding salaries for Diet members to force those convicted of election fraud to return their salaries haven’t been realized. Will a bill calling for such revisions be put forward in the regular Diet session?
The coalition ruling parties of LDP and Komeito have already reached an agreement on the revisions, but that agreement hasn’t led to the enactment of legal reforms. Although we have not had any cases that might violate this law since the Kawai scandal, we have to revise the law so we can be prepared for any future instances. I recognize that the ruling parties have to work to ensure such revisions can be approved at the regular Diet session.

The public voiced their anger and doubt about the new and incumbent lower house members who were victorious in the last election, because they received the entire amount of 1.0 million yen as a monthly allowance for documentation, communication, transportation, and accommodation (what is known as “correspondence allowances”), despite the fact they had served in their respective roles only one day, in October 2021.
That was not a scandal per se, but the public questioned whether the current system was appropriate and argued that it didn’t make sense based on their own ideas of right and wrong. I agree with that view. We are now discussing this issue, under the leadership of Mr. Motegi. I think the deliberations are an important aspect of the work to enhance the government’s transparency.

Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT)
The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), adopted at the United Nations in 1996, bans all nuclear tests that produce a nuclear explosion. As of September 2021, 170 nations have ratified the CTBT, including Japan. Enacting the treaty requires ratification by all 44 nations that have nuclear reactors as of the treaty negotiation process, but the CTBT still has not come into effect because eight nations including the United States, China, and India have yet to ratify the treaty. In 1993, the United States proposed the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), but the negotiations to establish the FMCT have been at a standstill because of conflicting interests among the various nations. As this treaty aims to prohibit production of nuclear weapons materials such as highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium it is also sometimes simply referred to as the “Cut-off treaty.” Both treaties were positioned as nuclear disarmament measures in the final document adopted at the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in 2000.

Large-scale vote buying scandal over 2019 upper house election in Hiroshima electoral district
According to the Tokyo District Court’s ruling, Katsuyuki Kawai, the former LDP member and member of the House of Representatives, distributed 28.91 million yen in total to 100 local council members and supporters’ group members in hopes of winning the election in which his wife, Anri Kawai, former LDP member and member of the House of Councilors, was trying to win. About 40 people who accepted the money included active members of the prefectural assembly, city and town council members, and mayors. As the court’s final and binding decision, Katsuyuki was sentenced to prison, and Anri was convicted on charges of collusion related to providing 1.6 million yen to four prefectural assembly members. In July 2021, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office decided not to indict all 100 of the people who admitted to receiving cash from Mr. Kawai, while at the same time acknowledging that they had committed the crime of accepting pay-offs while serving in public office.

Fumio Kishida
Graduated from Waseda University. After working at the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan and serving as secretary for a member of the House of Representatives (the Diet’s lower house), he was elected to the House of Representatives for the first time in 1993. He has held such positions as LDP’s Youth Division Director, Minister of State for Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs, Chairperson of the LDP Diet Affairs Committee, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Chairperson of the LDP Policy Research Council. He is 64 years old. He was elected to the House of Representatives 10 times in total, representing Hiroshima Prefectural District No. 1 (Kishida Faction).

(Originally published on January 1, 2022)