Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida may become more willing to call a general election as early as June as he apparently believes his state visit to the United States has borne fruit, helping reverse his unpopularity.

As the first Japanese political leader to make a trip to the United States as a state guest in nine years, Kishida agreed with President Joe Biden to bolster bilateral cooperation in a wide range of fields, including defense and cutting-edge technologies.

U.S. President Joe Biden (back R) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida toast during a state dinner at the White House in Washington on April 10, 2024. (Kyodo)


Some pundits have credited Kishida for his diplomatic efforts to strengthen the alliance between Tokyo and Washington ahead of the U.S. presidential race in November, in which Donald Trump, who has pursued his unilateralist "America First" policy, might be reelected.

In Japan, however, criticism of Kishida has shown little sign of subsiding due to a political funds scandal that has considerably eroded public trust in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, although he recently punished around 40 lawmakers involved in it.

The LDP has come under intense scrutiny after its largest faction, formerly led by the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and others neglected to report portions of their income from fundraising parties and accumulated slush funds for years for their members.

Earlier this month, the LDP took severe punitive measures against senior lawmakers of the biggest faction, but the party excluded its leader Kishida despite a former accountant of his group having been issued a summary indictment over the slush funds scandal.

Within Kishida's LDP, the punishments have drawn backlash from its members who perceive them as unfair, while opposition parties have criticized the ruling party's investigation for failing to fully bring to light the facts surrounding the scandal.

The LDP said about 80 members were implicated in the scandal, but "the number of lawmakers subject to the disciplinary actions is small," signaling Kishida's desire to avoid intraparty division, said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor emeritus at Nihon University in Tokyo.

"Dissatisfaction will build up within the LDP" unless Kishida adequately explains what was behind his decision, said Iwai, well-versed in political science, indicating he cannot create momentum to dissolve the House of Representatives in the near future.

Nevertheless, Kishida said following the announcement of the penalties, "I want the public and party members to make a final judgment" on whether his decision was correct, sparking speculation that he would dissolve the lower house to call a snap election soon.

Nobuyuki Baba, the leader of the country's second-largest opposition Japan Innovation Party, said Kishida should "seek a popular mandate immediately," with expectations growing that the LDP will lose many seats if a lower house election is held in June.

Kishida, who took office in October 2021, has been exploring the optimal timing to win a general election to consolidate his political footing, as he has been keen to be reelected as LDP leader. The next presidential race is scheduled around September.

On Monday in Washington, Kishida became Japan's first prime minister to visit the United States as a state guest since 2015, when Abe, who was fatally shot during an election campaign in 2022, did. Kishida addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Thursday.

At a summit in Washington on Wednesday, Kishida confirmed with Biden that Japan and the United States will work together to tackle security threats in the Asia-Pacific region and reinforce supply chains, amid China's increasing military and economic assertiveness.

At an arrival ceremony for the Japanese premier, Kishida said Japan and the United States will "take the lead" in grappling with global challenges, looking "10 years and also 100 years ahead" in developing relations.

His speech at a state dinner hosted Wednesday by Biden and his wife Jill was warmly received by the attendees.

Takashi Kawakami, a lecturer at Chuo University in Tokyo, said it is "significant" to aim to enhance the Japan-U.S. alliance now, as bilateral ties could become more fragile in the coming years if Trump were reelected as president.

Kishida's state visit to the United States came as approval ratings for his Cabinet have been plunging to their lowest levels since it was launched against a backdrop of the slush funds scandal revealed late last year.

Stephen Nagy, a professor at International Christian University in Tokyo, said, "Bilateral summits with U.S. presidents always provide a temporary boost to Japanese prime ministers. I do not expect any difference from this visit."

So far, Kishida has tried to prop up his sluggish support by pitching his diplomatic achievements, such as making a surprise visit to Ukraine in March 2023 and successfully hosting the Group of Seven summit in his home constituency of Hiroshima in May that year.

Especially after the G7 summit, Kishida's approval ratings had temporarily recovered, but they eventually faced another downward trend due in part to the emergence of inappropriate photographs taken during a family function at the prime minister's official residence.

A source close to Kishida said his state visit to the United States might offer a window of opportunity for him to restore his political power, prompting him to dissolve the lower house in the run-up to the LDP presidential election in the fall.

Satsuki Katayama, an LDP lawmaker, said Kishida appears to be mapping out strategies to call a snap election, while a heavyweight within the party said, "The headwinds are not going away anytime soon, so the lower house dissolution is unlikely."

Asked about when Kishida will dissolve the lower house, a senior government official close to him said, "It is like a mirage. You can see it a little further ahead, but as you get closer, you cannot see it anymore."

The current four-year terms for lower house members expire in October 2025 unless Kishida dissolves the chamber. Under Japan's Constitution, the prime minister has the authority to decide whether to dissolve the lower house.

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