japans leader fumio kishida tries to honour abes legacy while building his own - Japan's leader Fumio Kishida tries to honour Abe's legacy, while building his own

TOKYO (NYTIMES) – Mr Fumio Kishida has spent years trying to emerge from the shadow of Shinzo Abe, former prime minister of Japan who was gunned down at a campaign rally on July 8.

Ever since both were elected in 1993 to the Diet, as Japan’s parliament is known, Abe had been the more prominent politician. A charismatic presence, he outshone Mr Kishida, a party stalwart who can be so stiff that a schoolgirl recently asked him about the last time he truly laughed. His answer: whenever his beloved baseball team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, wins.

After Mr Kishida finally – on the second try – ascended to the prime minister’s office, Abe continued to niggle him from the sidelines. He floated controversial ideas, such as a proposal that Japan host US nuclear weapons, and warned that financial markets might see Mr Kishida’s economic policies as “socialist” and react badly to them.

Now, after the assassination, Mr Kishida, 64, is trying to honour Abe while proving that he can set himself apart from the legacy of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.

“A couple of years ago, Kishida was almost considered as one who had no chance to become prime minister,” said Dr Mikitaka Masuyama, a professor of political science at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. Now, he said, “we have to figure out whether Kishida really has the ability and leadership qualities to run the government and control” his Liberal Democratic Party.

The looming question for Mr Kishida is how he will spend his political capital, bolstered by a victory in elections to the Upper House of Parliament a week ago. The prime minister had already indicated that he would move to enact Abe’s most cherished goals, including a revision of the pacifist clause in the constitution that renounces war, as well as an increase in defence spending.

Last week, Mr Kishida was quick to say he would take up the “difficult issues” that Abe had “poured his passion into” but “couldn’t accomplish”. He promised to “drastically enhance Japan’s defence capabilities within five years”.

As much as Abe’s death, geopolitical circumstances will dictate Mr Kishida’s choices. The war in Ukraine and rising military threats from China and North Korea have prompted Mr Kishida, who had previously cast himself as a liberal-leaning, dovish member of the Liberal Democrats, to take on a more hawkish mantle.

Given the regional pressures, “raising defence spending is not optional anymore for Tokyo,” said Dr Titli Basu, an associate fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.

Most Japanese recognise those threats: In polls, a majority backs increasing the defence budget. And although the public once vociferously opposed revising the pacifist constitution, surveys in the spring indicated that a majority would now consider it.

Mr Kishida is “saying things that in the past, whoever said it would have had political division,” said Mr Rahm Emanuel, US ambassador to Japan. “There is consensus-building that is partly to his credit and partly to events.”

In the nine months since the party chose Mr Kishida as prime minister, he has steadily extended the unstinting diplomacy that was a hallmark of Abe’s reign.

He has also quietly differentiated himself from his predecessor.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, Mr Kishida strongly condemned Russia’s actions without hesitation and swiftly enacted sanctions. Eight years earlier, Abe, keen to foster a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, had dragged his feet on imposing sanctions after Russia annexed Crimea.