Note: I generally prefer not to refer to the figures I write about by their first names – perhaps with one notable exception – but it was unavoidable in this post given the need to distinguish between different members of the Abe-Kishi dynasty.
On February 7, Kishi Nobuo, younger brother of the late Abe Shinzō, formally resigned from his seat in the House of Representatives, representing Yamaguchi’s second district. Kishi, who has been in poor health for several years, had already left the Kishida cabinet last year – stepping down in August after serving nearly two years as defense minister – and in December signaled that he would not run for another term in the Diet. By mid-December, it was reported that he would not serve until the end of his term and would instead resign in early 2023, triggering a second by-election in Yamaguchi prefecture in April, where voters would also be electing a representative to succeed Abe from Yamaguchi’s fourth district.
For the first time since 1993, the House of Representatives is without a member of the Kishi-Abe dynasty. But in all likelihood this absence will not last very long.
Even before he indicated that he would resign in the immediate future, Kishi had already informed supporters that he hoped that his son, thirty-one-year-old Kishi Nobuchiyo, would inherit his Diet seat. Nobuchiyo, like his father, graduated from Keio University, but, unlike his father (and more like his uncle Shinzō) had a relatively short career – as a reporter for Fuji TV – before becoming his father’s private secretary, first at the Defense Ministry and then in his political office from August onwards.
Nobuchiyo was not necessarily the first choice of Abe Yōko, Kishi’s daughter and matron of the Abe-Kishi dynasty, commonly called the “godmother” in the tabloid press. After the assassination, the family was searching for someone to carry on the Abe name itself in Abe’s district, but his widow, Akie, declined to run; his nephew and niece, children of his older brother Abe Hironobu, were uninterested; and Nobuo clearly wanted Nobuchiyo to succeed him under the Kishi name. There was apparently speculation that Nobuchiyo’s younger brother Tomohiro would be adopted by Akie, take the Abe name, and run in Yamaguchi-4, but this never rose above speculation. And thus, for now, Nobuchiyo is the only member of the dynasty seeking public office.
It is, of course, not surprising that the Abe-Kishi dynasty will continue into another generation. As Columbia University’s Daniel M. Smith shows in his Dynasties and Democracy, Japan may be seeing the relative decline of hereditary politics, but dynasties like the Abe-Kishi dynasty remain predominant at the highest levels of the political system.The scions of the most powerful dynasties continue to benefit from the three ban provided by their families. Indeed, as he prepares his own campaign, Nobuchiyo made this all but explicit: the first version of his website, since removed (but archived via the Wayback Machine) prominently featured his family tree. The effect is particularly pronounced given Nobuchiyo’s age. At thirty-one, Shinzō was still working as his father’s private secretary and would not win his first election to the Diet for another eight years.
Nobuchiyo is likely to win his father’s seat in the April 23 by-election – Nobuo averaged roughly seventy-five percent of the vote in the past two general elections – but could face more of a race, as his father racked up big vote totals facing only Communist Party candidates but the Constitutional Democrats may be preparing to field candidates in both Yamaguchi by-elections.
But even if Nobuchiyo is likely to prevail in April, the bigger challenge will be when the next general election arrives. Thanks to redistricting, Yamaguchi prefecture will lose one of its four constituencies, with the second district being merged with most of the first district, the third district receiving the remainder of the first and being renumbered as the first, and the fourth becoming the third. The first district is at present represented by another dynast, fifty-two-year-old Kōmura Masahiro, who succeeded his father, Kōmura Masahiko, a former foreign, defense, and justice minister as well as LDP vice president under Abe for a record of five years; the third is currently represented by Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa, who finally managed to jump from the upper house to the lower house in 2021. Also stepping into the mix is the thirty-eight-year-old Yoshida Shinji, former mayor of Shimonoseki, the prefecture’s largest city, who in January was formally endorsed by the LDP for the by-election after appearing to receive the blessing of Abe Akie and the late prime minister’s kōenkai as early as December.
Assuming the LDP wins the by-elections in April – not an unreasonable assumption – one of these four will be without a district when the next general election comes. Perhaps the most likely outcome is a “Costa Rica” arrangement between Kishi Nobuchiyo and Kōmura Masahiko, whereby they alternate between running as single-member constituency candidates and purely proportional representation candidates.But Abe’s death upset what would have otherwise been an orderly arrangement, in which Kōmura would likely have had little choice but to accept a PR nomination. However, Kōmura has already said that he intends to run as a single-member constituency candidate, and, despite the Kishi name, it may be difficult to make Kōmura, who has already won two elections, step aside for the newcomer.
Kishi Nobuchiyo’s – and Yoshida Shinji’s – fates may also depend on whether Hayashi, somewhat unexpectedly the senior-most political figure in the prefecture after years of having his ambitions frustrated by Abe, is able to strengthen his control over the LDP’s chapter in Yamaguchi. Toyo Keizai suggests that Hayashi, whose roots are in Shimonoseki, could actually bid for the new third district ahead of the next general election. Yoshida has been referred to as “one-point relief,” i.e., a pitcher who comes from the bullpen to face a single batter, suggesting he could face pressure to step aside for Hayashi.
But Hayashi’s ascendancy is unlikely to go unchallenged, both because of personal rivalries and ideology. The Abe-Hayashi rivalry dates back to their fathers running against each other in the prefecture under the pre-1994 multiple-member district system, and Abe’s followers may be reluctantly to yield either what would have been Abe’s constituency or the leadership of the prefectural party to Hayashi. Meanwhile, ideological hostility will no doubt also be a factor, as Hayashi, who belongs to Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s faction, has been attacked by the right wing as soft on China.
While the outcomes of the by-elections in April will provide more information about the distribution of power in the prefecture, the succession battle in Yamaguchi is unlikely to be resolved easily or quickly. I would not bet against the Abe-Kishi dynasty’s extending into another generation, but Nobuchiyo’s entry into the family business is unlikely to be seamless.
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Smith’s book, an essential addition to a Japanese politics library, happens to be on available for 30% off from Stanford University Press through the end of February.
The key to victory in Japanese elections has customarily been described as depending on the three ban: jiban (a support base), kanban (name recognition), and kaban (financial support). The most distinguished of hereditary politicians benefit from all three.
In one of the more random facts about Japanese politics, this arrangement whereby LDP candidates alternate between running in single-member districts and on PR lists is referred to as the “Costa Rica” method simply because Mori Yoshirō, LDP secretary-general when the method was devised, was head of the Parliamentarians’ League for Japan-Costa Rica.
See, for example, recent articles by Abe biographer Yamaguchi Noriyuki in the right-wing journal Hanada: https://hanada-plus.shop/products/388.
Out of the three “Bans” wasn’t koban supposed to be kaban (鞄). Apologies if I was mistaken.