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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Leading Japan: Part 1

Oct. 25, 2016

Tonight and tomorrow on the FOCUS we'll look into the political battle among lawmakers within the ruling and opposition parties vying for the top post, the Prime-Ministership. Tonight, we start with the main governing Liberal Democratic Party.

In September, two politicians expressed their willingness to succeed the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, in the future.

One is former Local Revitalization Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who is distancing himself from the center of power.

The other is Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. He's been at this post close to 4 years.

Last month, Shigeru Ishiba made clear at a meeting of his own faction that he will work hard so he can take part in the LDP's next leadership election.

"I must create firm policies and start to implement them from the day I become the LDP president," Ishiba said.

Ishiba fought against Abe in the leadership election 4 years ago, when the party was striving to return to power. Although he lost, he gained more votes than Abe from local party members.

After that, he supported Abe as the party's Secretary General and later the Local Revitalization Minister.

But he was left out of the lineup in the latest Cabinet reshuffle in August. He declined an offer to keep his ministerial post.

Ishiba said his views about the country's right to collective self-defense differed from those of the Abe Cabinet. He added that his fiscal policies differed slightly as well. He thought that for him to speak freely, it was appropriate to do so from outside the cabinet.

With an eye on the party's presidential election 2 years from now, Ishiba and members of his faction are trying to expand his appeal, even to people in their teens and 20s.

They launched a website to promote Ishiba's views and the faction's activities, and also created a manga-style icon for a popular online chat application.

We asked him to share the vision of his policies if he takes the Prime Minister's seat.

Ishiba said, "Japan has been relying too much on its past legacy. We are leaving our children and grandchildren more and more burden. My job is to stop this. This would be the first mission for a prime minister no matter who takes the seat."

Ishiba also once held the post of defense minister.

In his spare time, he likes to make plastic models of fighter planes and warships. He is also known as a big fan of Japanese pop culture, including idols and comics.

He recently attracted public attention when he blogged about a scene from the popular movie "Shin Godzilla" to illustrate his views on national security policies. The scene he referred to was when the government deploys Self-Defense Forces to confront the monster Godzilla attacking Tokyo.

We asked him to assess his strengths and weaknesses as a hopeful for Prime Minister.

Ishiba replied, "I'm not so shameless as to boast about my own virtues. But I've been a Diet member for many years and served in party posts, such as chief of the Policy Research Council and Secretary General, as well as cabinet posts including Local Revitalization Minister. In those posts, I prided myself on being close to the people"

"No matter how grand the policy you advocate, you need to be close to the people for the policy to resonate with them," Ishiba continued. "This can also be my weakness. Being close to the general public and the rank-and-file party members makes me stick out in Japan's political world of 'Nagata-cho'."

The other contender to succeed Abe is Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. He told a meeting of supporters that he hopes to lead the country someday.

Kishida said, "Our faction will firmly take the helm of government someday. We will implement policies with a sense of balance."

He is known as a prudent person and is widely seen as a practical politician.

His tenacious behind-the-scenes negotiations with the US government led to US President Barack Obama's visit to Hiroshima in May. It was the first visit to the atomic-bombed city by a sitting US President.

Hiroshima is Kishida's hometown. He is a longtime fan of the local professional baseball team, the Hiroshima Carp.

When the Carp took the pennant for the first time in 25 years in September, Kishida may have seen his own future in the team's triumph. He said with a smile at the time, "You can't conduct politics or play baseball all by yourself. You can produce results only with the help of your colleagues or with teamwork. In that sense, I think, politics and baseball share something in common."

Last Friday, an NHK reporter asked Kishida for his views on the LDP's move to extend term limits for the party's president, and what issues he would like to tackle as president.

Kishida said, "My understanding is that the discussions about term limits are ongoing. I'd like to keep an eye on them. As to your question about what I hope to do as party president, I'd like to refrain from answering hypothetical questions."

Some people say Kishida is not good at getting his message across. When we asked him to assess his own strengths, Kishida replied, "Well ... my strengths.... Many things happen when you are a politician. I try to be forward-looking. I keep a positive attitude. I think this is my strength. My weaknesses? Well ... sometimes ... I may become too cautious, perhaps. That's just about it."

Besides these two, there are others seen as potential successors to Abe.

One is Defense Minister Tomomi Inada. She's widely seen to be close to the prime minister in her thinking and beliefs. Some people think Abe expects her to play a leadership role in the future.

Another is Seiko Noda, a former chair of the party's General Council. She expressed her ambition by saying, "I want to be a Parliament member who is capable of doing things worthy of the next prime minister."

Shinjiro Koizumi is only 35 years old, and has been elected to the Diet just three times; however, he is heading the party's Agriculture and Forestry Division. Koizumi is known as a good communicator, fueling hopes for his future among the people around him.

So, who will succeed Abe? There's speculation that Abe may stick around in the top post for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympics four years from now. So the race may turn into a marathon.


NHK World's political news correspondent Takeshi Kurihara spoke with Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu.

Shibuya: How are Prime Ministers chosen in Japan?

Kurihara: Well, we have a different system from that of the US presidential system, where people directly choose their leader. Japan has a parliamentary government. This means that people first choose the lawmakers and it is these lawmakers that choose the Prime Minister. What actually happens is that both chambers of the Diet, the upper and the lower, each hold a vote to appoint a Diet lawmaker as their choice of Prime Minister. If the two chambers select different legislators, the decision of the Lower House takes priority.

In principle, the leader of the party that holds the largest number of seats in the Diet becomes Prime Minister. In the current coalition government of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, the LDP has more seats. Shinzo Abe is the president of the LDP, and thus he is now the Prime Minister.

Beppu: LDP lawmakers have been discussing whether to extend the term limits for the president and it is likely that the party will agree on this. If so, how are things going to change?

Kurihara: Although there's no limit on how long a Prime Minister can serve, the LDP has its own rule that limits the president to 2 terms. Each term is 3 years. That brings the maximum to 6 years.

It's likely they will agree to extend the number of allowable terms to 3, which means the leader could stay in office for up to 9 years.

Abe resigned as Prime Minister and LDP president in 2007, citing poor health. He came back as president in September 2012, when the party was in the opposition camp. Later that year, the party returned to power, allowing Abe to become Prime Minister once again.

Abe is now in his second term. As it now stands, his tenure will have to end in September 2018, paving the way for a leadership election. However, if the limit is extended, he will have the right to stand in that election for a third term. If he wins, he could be in office until September 2021.

Beppu: So, naturally, if such an extension is agreed, of course it will affect the strategies of Ishiba and Kishida?

Kurihara: Of course it will. Both have been building their strategies to become Prime Minister on the assumption that Abe's term would end in 2018. As we've seen, Ishiba refused to take a ministerial post when Abe reshuffled his Cabinet in August. Now, being in a free position, he is visiting many parts of the country and speaking out about his policies.

Kishida might look less vocal about this issue, but it doesn't mean that he is less interested in the top job.

However, with an extension in sight, some party members are now saying that Abe is going to be his own successor. This is because the party has won 4 parliamentary elections in a row under Abe and the approval rating for his Cabinet remains relatively high.

At the same time, there are certain dynamics, and these movements may affect how this country is going to be led. I invite you to keep a close eye on how things unfold.