An expert on Japanese politics offered a memorable phrase when I asked her why Kishida Fumio recently became the nation’s prime minister.
“People who do not bow are not appreciated as leaders,” said Keiko Iizuka, a political writer at The Yomiuri Shimbun and lead commentator for the nightly news program News in Depth (Shinso News).
Kishida, she explained, took his bowing seriously, lowering his head before influential politicians and organization leaders. He told them that if they supported his bid for high office, he would become their humble servant.
According to Iizuka, it was Kishida’s encounter with the chairman of the Keidanren – the powerful confederation of Japanese business – that ensured him the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party, in preference over other more charismatic candidates.
The business group, currently chaired by Tokura Masakazu from Sumitomo, agrees that Kishida’s policies based around the concept of “a new capitalism” are in line with their own approach.
Having been selected for the top job at the LDP, Kishida led the party into an election on October 31. The LDP won enough votes to maintain an overall majority in the lower house of the Japanese Diet.
As soon as the election results were confirmed – and before he had appointed a new foreign minister – Kishida flew to Glasgow in Scotland, to take part in the most intensive diplomatic event of the year: the COP26 U.N. conference on climate change.
This gave him an opportunity for a brief face-to-face meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, as well as a platform to hail Japan’s role in leading the fight against global warming, particularly in Asia.
The prime minister spoke of the technological skills of Japanese companies in developing systems to make the switch from existing thermal power sources to zero-emission renewables.
He signaled that the government seeks to act in harmony with large corporations and sogo shosha trading houses, such as Sumitomo, to develop green energy opportunities in the Asian region.
Kishida said the government would back “an innovative financial facility for climate, as we partner with the Asian Development Bank and others to support the decarbonization of Asia and beyond.”
He also said Japan will fund $100 million worth of projects through the Asia Energy Transition Initiative, using cleaner fuel alternatives, such as ammonia and hydrogen.
However, Kishida was careful not to promise actions that could be deemed as overambitious by the business lobby. Japanese CEOs are often impatient with prime ministers who interfere with company decisions and can move to undermine them politically.
Japan’s longest serving prime minister, Abe Shinzo, was cautious about making pronouncements on climate change, unless he had previously consulted with corporate leaders.
Nevertheless, Kishida’s immediate predecessor, Suga Yoshihide, announced an ambitious goal when he was prime minister, promising that Japan would cut emissions in 2030 by 46 percent relative to 2013 levels, a reduction of 20 percent compared with the previous target.
There has been much debate about how this vision can be achieved. The government is currently working on a new energy strategy in close consultation with industry.
It was significant that at the COP26 in Glasgow, Japan was not among the 46 countries that pledged to phase out coal by the 2040s. In the final plenum of the conference, the president, the U.K.’s Alok Sharma, agreed to water down the final communique to include a pledge to “phase down” coal instead.
Japan, which gets about 30 percent of its power from coal, plans to cut this to less than 20 percent by 2030, but has no timeline for dropping it entirely. This frustrates environmental campaigners, but progress has been slowed by the difficulty of restarting nuclear reactors that went offline after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
Similarly, Japanese carmakers, such as Toyota, were not included on the list of automotive companies that signed a communique in Glasgow to say they are committed to phasing out the production of fossil-fuel vehicles around the world by 2040.
This is surprising, given Japan’s pioneering role in green transportation. However, the automotive sector appears to be appraising developments in technology and assessing market trends before authorizing the government to make pledges on its behalf.
The British government, which hosted COP26, hailed it as a diplomatic success, pointing to significant agreements on emission reductions, several of which had the full support of Japan.
Japan joined more than 100 countries that promised to stop deforestation by 2030. More than 68 percent – or about 24 million hectares – of Japan is forested and current deforestation rates are low, according to the conservation news platform Mongabay.
The Japanese delegation also agreed to comply with a scheme to cut 30 percent of methane emissions by 2030. Biden called methane “one of the most potent greenhouse gases there is.”
Kishida is hoping that he will be able to arrange another meeting with Biden soon, during which environmental issues will be discussed, as well as defense and security.
The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was determined for the newly elected prime minister to appear in person among the world leaders in Glasgow, especially as China’s leader, Xi Jinping did not attend.
Biden used his press conference to criticize Xi’s absence. “It is a gigantic issue and they just walked away,” he said, adding, “How do you do that and claim to have any leadership mantle?”
China says that Xi chose not to go to Glasgow because of concerns about COVID-19 and because he was chairing an important plenum of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.
Nevertheless, while COP26 was still in progress, the United States and China announced a joint declaration on fighting climate change, which included endorsements of two agreements also signed by Japan: cutting methane emissions and protecting forests.
At the conclusion of the conference, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he hoped that COP26 would “mark the beginning of the end on climate change” and the United States’ representative, John Kerry, suggested that the inclusion of any commitment on coal was an achievement.
Kerry said: “We always knew that Glasgow was not the finish line and anybody who thought it was doesn’t understand the challenge that we have.”
Referring to the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rises to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and trying to keep this down to 1.5 Celsius, Kerry added: “Paris built the arena, Glasgow started the race, and tonight the starting gun was fired.”
Soon after returning to Tokyo from the COP26 conference, Kishida announced that he had chosen Hayashi Yoshimasa as foreign minister.
Hayashi was previously the chairman of the Japan-China friendship parliamentary group, which promotes good relations with Beijing. Upon his appointment as the country’s chief foreign envoy, he resigned from that role.
In speaking to the press, Hayashi emphasized that Japan would “exercise leadership” in tackling global issues such as climate change.
Hayashi also said he would firmly face up to difficult issues in relations with China, South Korea, and other neighboring countries, while making efforts to establish steady ties.
Hayashi’s rhetoric since his appointment has often referred to “a free and open Indo-Pacific.” This diplomatic term matches that of the State Department in Washington in describing the tense region of the world that contains Japan and China. There is also a similar tone in diplomatic language from the United States and Japan on climate change.
Despite the compromise over coal at COP26, Kishida’s government can nevertheless claim to have supported an ambitious pact to rein in rising temperatures.
The final text of the conference communique requests countries to reconvene next year with stronger plans to cut carbon emissions. This leaves Kishida with valuable time to work further on Japan’s energy strategy and to ensure it receives the nod of approval from industry.