Prime Minister Fumio Kishida this week announced income tax cuts in hopes of improving his administration's fortunes, countering scorn directed his way by disaffected online commentators who nicknamed him "tax hike glasses" due to his apparently unfashionable eyewear and pledges to fund massive defense spending.
Kishida instructed the ruling parties to consider measures to ease the cost of living burden amid cost-push inflation in an apparent bid to prop up sliding approval ratings for his Cabinet, which have plunged to their lowest-ever levels.
"I don't care what you call me," was Kishida's response to his new nickname, but his attempt to show leadership and shake off his reputation-taxing moniker eventually triggered criticism within his conservative Liberal Democratic Party, casting a shadow on his future.
It is widely believed the increasingly unpopular Kishida has his finger on the election trigger, with a successful outcome from a snap poll key to his campaign to secure a second three-year term as LDP president in a race to be held around September 2024.
But with his change of heart on taxation, considered an effort to spend his way into votes, failing so far, Kishida may be forced to delay any plan to dissolve the House of Representatives despite speculation that he might do so by the end of this year, pundits said.
Kishida's willingness to change tack so dramatically gives the impression he will do whatever it takes to "immediately push up approval ratings" for his Cabinet, political commentator Harumi Arima said, adding, "It will be difficult for him to regain support.
Kazuo Mizuno, a professor in economics at Hosei University, echoed the view, saying Kishida "has proposed various policies, but it is unclear how they are related, and therefore we cannot see the overall goal he is pursuing."
Thursday's new 17 trillion yen ($113 billion) spending package is aimed at giving tax breaks to help households that are struggling with the inflation that has far outpaced increases in incomes.
But the new tax cuts send a mixed message, as they come after Kishida's administration already locked in tax increases within a few years to finance a plan to almost double Japan's annual defense spending.
The goal is to have Japan spend about 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense over the next five years, on par with members of NATO.
In addition, Kishida has committed to expanding the budget for child care to address Japan's rapidly declining birthrate, sparking concern about how he will pay for it. There is speculation the politically sensitive consumption tax, currently at 10 percent, may be increased again.
Kishida revamped his Cabinet in mid-September in hopes of improving public perception, but the move did not translate in his polling numbers.
Late last month, the LDP lost one of two seats up for grabs in national by-elections, highlighting the current unpopularity of the administration some two years after it began. Until that time, Kishida had to navigate several gaffe-forced ministerial resignations and damaging political funds scandals.
Former Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara, one of the closest aides to the prime minister, said in a YouTube program on Sept. 19, "Kishida's government has gained a reputation as one that is inclined to tax hikes, so it should carry out tax cuts" to change that perception.
Afterward, Kishida floated the idea of returning some of the record-high tax revenues to the public, as Japan's tax take reached 71 trillion yen for the fiscal year through March 2023, a third straight yearly high.
Kishida "intended to break through the situation by implementing tax cuts" to bolster his support so he could quickly dissolve the lower house, a source close to him said.
An LDP lawmaker said, "The prime minister really does not like being called tax hike glasses. He comes from a privileged background, so he is probably not accustomed to being openly insulted." Kishida's father was a bureaucrat and a lower house lawmaker.
But with public support remaining stubbornly low, some LDP lawmakers have begun to criticize Kishida's contradictory tax policy position.
Hiroshige Seko, the LDP secretary general in the House of Councillors, said at a Diet session that Kishida "has not shown himself to be a leader," prompting some to become more confident that his government has finally reached a critical moment.
Kishida stuck to his script, though, saying at a press conference on Thursday after his Cabinet approved the new economic stimulus package, "I will do what I believe should be done to shore up the economy, bolster defense capabilities, enhance child care support and promote energy policies."
Kishida's commitment to his stated goals makes some political experts believe he has not yet given up hope of dissolving the lower house in the not-so-distant future. They believe he aims to keep himself in the top job in a similar fashion to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who held a tight grip on power for over seven years through 2020.
So far, Kishida has eschewed opportunities to dissolve the parliament, such as his surprise trip in March to war-torn Ukraine and after hosting the Group of Seven summit in his home constituency of Hiroshima.
"Kishida will try to improve the approval ratings for his Cabinet by pitching the new economic package and is likely to continue trying to find the best time to dissolve the lower house," political journalist Tetsuo Suzuki said.