Japan new PM to seek fresh mandate to handle virus, economy

(AP) — Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he will dissolve the lower house next week in preparation for Oct. 31 elections as he seeks a fresh mandate to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the sagging economy and security threats from China and North Korea.

Kishida was formally elected by Parliament earlier Monday to replace Yoshihide Suga, who resigned after only one year in office. Suga’s support had plunged over his handling of the pandemic and insistence on holding the Tokyo Olympics as the virus spread.

“Our fight against the coronavirus is continuing,” Kishida told his first news conference Monday night after taking office. “COVID-19 measures is the urgent and top priority, and I will handle the problem taking into consideration the worst-case scenario.” He said he will review the past virus handling and seek to set up a crisis management unit.

He also pledged to push through a large-scale recovery package to support those hit by the pandemic.

“In order to take large-scale COVID-19 measures, I need to get the people’s mandate,” Kishida said, adding that he will pass up attending G-20 and COP-26 climate meetings in-person.

A former foreign minister, Kishida, 64, used to be known as a moderate but turned hawkish on security and more conservative on gender equality and other issues, apparently to win over influential conservatives in his Liberal Democratic Party. His victory in last week’s vote to replace Suga as the party’s leader was seen as a choice for continuity and stability over change.

Kishida replaced all but two of Suga’s 20 Cabinet members, and 13 will hold posts for the first time, according to the lineup announced by new Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno. Most of the posts went to powerful factions that voted for Kishida in the party election. Only three women are included, up from two in Suga’s government.

Veteran female lawmaker Seiko Noda, one of four candidates who vied for the party leadership, became the minister in charge of the nation’s declining birthrate and local revitalization. Another woman, Noriko Horiuchi, became vaccinations minister, replacing Taro Kono, the runner-up in the party leadership race.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, who is former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s younger brother, were retained, ensuring continuity of Japan’s diplomacy and security policies as the country seeks to closely work with Washington under the bilateral security pact in the face of China’s rise and growing tensions in the region, including around Taiwan.

President Joe Biden spoke with Kishida about those issues after he took office. They affirmed the strength of their bilateral alliance and Biden noted that he looks forward to strengthening the relationship, given their common vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, according to a White House statement describing their conversation.

Kishida supports stronger Japan-U.S. security ties and partnerships with other like-minded democracies in Asia, Europe and Britain, in part to counter China and nuclear-armed North Korea. He pledged to beef up Japan’s missile and naval defense capability.

Kishida acknowledged the importance to continue dialogue with China, an important neighbor and trade partner, but said that “we must speak up” against China’s attempt to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas.

Kishida created a new Cabinet post aimed at tackling the economic dimensions of Japan’s national security, appointing 46-year-old Takayuki Kobayashi, who is relatively new to parliament.

Finance Minister Taro Aso was shifted to a top party post and replaced by his 68-year-old relative, Shunichi Suzuki.

Kishida said he is open to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without preconditions to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens abducted to the North decades ago. He said he will cooperate with President Joe Biden in resolving North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.

Kishida also faces worsening ties with South Korea over history issues even after he struck a 2015 agreement with Seoul to resolve a row over the issue of women who were sexually abused by Japan’s military during World War II.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday sent a letter to Kishida, congratulating him and offering to work together to improve ties.

An urgent task at home will be turning around his party’s declining popularity, hurt by Suga’s perceived high-handedness on the pandemic and other issues.

He’ll also have to ensure Japan’s health care systems, vaccination campaign and other virus measures are ready for a possible resurgence of COVID-19 in winter, while gradually normalizing social and economic activity.

Voters welcomed new, and slightly younger, faces in the government.

A 28-year-old designer Karen Einaka said she hoped the new government takes into consideration younger people’s opinions and allows younger politicians to play important roles.

At least, “Kishida looks more energetic than Suga,” said business owner Makoto Okubo.