TOKYO — Japan has had no shortage of faceless prime ministers over the decades, a revolving door of leaders forgotten nearly as soon as they leave office. The most recent to hit the exit, who himself lasted only a year, was faulted for a communication style that often came across like a cure for insomnia.

Now comes Fumio Kishida, who was chosen as prime minister last month by the governing Liberal Democrats and led the party to victory Sunday in a closer-than-usual parliamentary election.

In anointing Kishida, 64, last month, the Liberal Democrats passed over both an outspoken maverick who was popular with the public and a far-right nationalist who would have been Japan’s first female leader.

The gamble most likely cost the party votes in tight races around the country but preserved its simple majority in parliament. Still, facing public discontent over economic stagnation and the government’s initial handling of the coronavirus crisis, the Liberal Democrats won a majority but lost seats that included some held by prominent party leaders.

The Liberal Democrats won 261 seats as of early Monday, exceeding the 233 needed for a majority, according to NHK, the public broadcaster. The party, however, lost 23 since from the last lower house election in 2017, when then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe led the party to a commanding victory.

The main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, also lost seats.


Kishida said the result showed that the electorate had given the Liberal Democrats a “very precious credence.”

While slightly less stodgy than his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, Kishida is frequently described as “boring” by the Japanese media, and he still struggles to connect with the public, or even his supporters and friends.

“His speech sounds so serious that it doesn’t sound interesting even if he was meaning to say something interesting,” said Ikuzo Kubota, 67, chairman of a real estate management company in Hiroshima, who has known Kishida for more than 30 years. “Even now, I sometimes think that he should learn how to say things in an interesting way.”

The rise of Kishida, a former foreign minister, is a potent reflection of the Liberal Democrats’ entrenched power in Japan. He was selected precisely because of his milquetoast persona, political experts said, as it allows behind-the-scenes power brokers to project their agenda onto him. And the party made its choice confident that it could win the election despite his lack of charisma.

Hoping to emerge from the election less weakened than expected, Kishida crisscrossed the country on chartered flights during the two-week campaign period. At his final campaign stop Saturday night, before a packed square in front of a Tokyo train station, Kishida received a smattering of polite applause as he shouted a hearty “Good evening.”

His voice cracked repeatedly as he tried to project enthusiasm into his stump speech, stumbling over his pledges to build a new style of economics and protect Japan in the face of growing regional instability. He wrapped up with a warning that Japanese democracy would be threatened if the country’s Communist Party gained more seats in parliament.


Kishida’s rhetoric about a “new capitalism” that would narrow income inequality, a platform aimed at a disgruntled public battered by coronavirus-related restrictions on business, has grown vaguer over the campaign.

He has ratcheted back a proposal to raise taxes on capital gains. Instead, he has returned to a familiar economic playbook for the Liberal Democrats, calling for more fiscal spending on projects backed by large industries such as construction, which typically support the party.

“He’s almost like a figurehead for other figures in the party to get their ideas through,” said James Brady, head Japan analyst at Teneo, a risk advisory consulting firm. “He’s not a strong leader. He’s not someone who’s coming up with a lot of ideas.”

Like many other Liberal Democratic lawmakers, Kishida was brought up in a political family. Both his grandfather and his father served in the House of Representatives, and Kishida started his political career as a secretary to his father.

Although Kishida represents a district in Hiroshima and his family is from the area, he was raised mostly in Tokyo. He spent three years in New York when his father was posted there during a stint at the trade ministry.

He often cites the formative experience of attending a public elementary school in the Elmhurst section of Queens, New York, describing an incident in 1965 when a white classmate refused to hold his hand as instructed by a teacher on a field trip. Kishida says the moment seeded in him a lifelong commitment to fairness and justice.


Back in Japan, Kishida was an ardent — although, by his own admission, middling — baseball player. He tried, and failed, three times to pass the entrance exam for the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious state university.

He finally enrolled at Waseda, a top private university in Tokyo. In “Kishida Vision,” a memoir published last year, he wrote that he was more interested in music and mahjong than academics during his undergraduate years.

Kishida started a career in banking, gaining empathy, he wrote, for people and small businesses struggling to repay loans.

When his father died of cancer at age 65, Kishida ran for the Hiroshima seat in 1993 and won. He has served in various Cabinet positions and was Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

He did not leave much of an impression on his colleagues. “I have no memory of him even though I met him every week in Cabinet meetings,” said Yoichi Masuzoe, a former governor of Tokyo who served as health minister when Kishida was a minister in charge of Okinawa and a string of islands known as the Northern Territories.

Some civil servants in the foreign ministry gave him the nickname “Chihuahua,” referring to him behind his back as a “well-mannered type of dog,” said Gen Nakatani, a former defense minister who has known Kishida for 30 years. One lawmaker whom Kishida met in college and described as one of his best friends went on to back a rival, Taro Kono, in the Liberal Democrats’ recent leadership election.


Kishida lacks the swagger or arrogance that characterizes other politicians. He “listens to people, is calm and never speaks ill of others,” Nakatani said. “He doesn’t behave in a selfish manner.”

He was foreign minister when President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima in 2016, and when South Korea and Japan signed an agreement in 2015 to compensate so-called comfort women, the term for those taken as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II. But Kishida rarely gets credit for these accomplishments.

If he is remembered, it is as an abundant drinker who maintains his dignity and leaves the bar before midnight. In his memoir, he wrote of matching Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, drink for drink. Kishida once hosted a birthday party for his Russian counterpart and presented him with a bottle of Suntory Hibiki 21 whiskey, which retails for about $750.

When Caroline Kennedy was the U.S. ambassador in Tokyo, Kishida gave her T-shirts, aprons and mugs imprinted with photos or cartoons of her face.

His attempts to endear himself on social media have sometimes fallen flat or drawn outright jeering.

A post he shared on Twitter and Instagram, showing his wife standing in the kitchen doorway while he sat at the table eating a dinner she had prepared, was roundly mocked. Videos showing his wife, Yuko, 57, and his three sons cheering him on have been slightly more popular.


“He’s a little bit socially and culturally out of step with the majority of the population,” said Shihoko Goto, a senior northeast Asia associate at the Wilson Center in Washington.

His self-effacement undergirds a political pragmatism that allows him to pivot when certain ideas grow unpopular or he needs to cater to a particularly powerful constituency. More often than not, that constituency comes from within the party, not the public.

As a politician from Hiroshima, Kishida has opposed nuclear weapons and taken more dovish stances on foreign policy. But as a candidate for prime minister, he ramped up his hawkish views on China and championed the restart of nuclear power plants, the vast majority of which have been idled since the triple meltdown in Fukushima 10 years ago. Supporting nuclear power is a key agenda item for the right wing of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Because Kishida won the prime ministerial election backed by lawmakers “more geared toward pleasing organized interests and big businesses,” he now has to reward them, said Megumi Naoi, an associate professor of political science at University of California, San Diego.

As for his proposals on economic inequality, Naoi said she could not tell how sincere he had been in the first place. “I don’t know how much of this is his belief,” she said, “or just campaign strategy or political survival strategy.”