Japan's Harvard-educated foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi has PM ambitions


  • Japan
  • Wednesday, 10 Nov 2021

Japan's new foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi was the only change from the Cabinet that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida appointed last month. - Reuters

TOKYO (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): Japan's new foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi hopes to follow in the footsteps of his ally, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, to one day land the top job as the nation's leader.

Hayashi, 60, has served as Kishida's right-hand lieutenant through thick and thin. He was a key strategist for the PM's losing bid to become chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last year, and again in the successful attempt this year.

He was named Foreign Minister on Wednesday (Nov 10) as Kishida, 64, was formally inaugurated as Japan's 101st Prime Minister after last month's resounding Lower House election victory.

Hayashi was the only change from the Cabinet that Kishida appointed last month. The post had opened up after Mr Toshimitsu Motegi, who was Foreign Minister since 2019, became LDP secretary-general.

The party post was vacated by Akira Amari, 72, who resigned after he failed to win his single-member seat in last month's election.

Hayashi benefited from circumstance, but his meteoric rise to become foreign minister has raised eyebrows within the LDP, while setting tongues wagging that it was in effect a quid pro quo and Kishida's first move in grooming his successor.

There was also apprehension over how Hayashi's apparent pro-China credentials, as chairman of a cross-party bilateral Friendship League, seemed to be out of lockstep with growing unease over Beijing's assertiveness.

Hayashi hails from a political dynasty; he is the son of former finance minister Yoshiro Hayashi. He was born in the coastal city of Shimonoseki in the western prefecture of Yamaguchi.

He graduated from the law faculty at the prestigious University of Tokyo, and holds a master's degree in public administration from the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is comfortable fronting news conferences entirely in English.

But the veteran politician, who won his first election in 1995, had one major Achilles' heel until last month's Lower House election: he was a five-term lawmaker of the less powerful Upper House.

Hayashi had once contested for the LDP presidency in 2012, but placed last among five candidates. The election was won by Shinzo Abe, who would go on to become Japan's longest-serving Prime Minister.

"It's not written in the Constitution that Upper House members cannot become Prime Ministers, but that's the sentiment, a kind of common sense that has prevailed within the party," he told a news conference in September.

He resigned from his Upper House seat in August to run for the Lower House in the third district of Yamaguchi Prefecture, in a move that was also shrouded in controversy and left a trail of resentment.

With Kishida in charge, Hayashi won the party's endorsement over veteran LDP lawmaker and former chief cabinet secretary Takeo Kawamura, 78, who was asked to retire from his Yamaguchi third district seat.

Adding to the bitter taste in a country where politics is virtually a family business with constituencies passing hands between parent and child, Kawamura's son Kenichi was not only shut out from running for his father's seat, but from the proportional representation list for the block covering Yamaguchi altogether.

"I can't afford to lose as I'm one of the party members behind the creation of the Kishida government," Hayashi reportedly said while on the campaign trail.

The controversy did not stop Hayashi from clinching a convincing victory, with 76.9 per cent of the vote, over a rival opposition candidate.

The triumph puts Hayashi in good company. Among the other politicians who represent districts in Yamaguchi, a conservative stronghold that has produced eight former Prime Ministers, are Abe and his brother, defence minister Nobuo Kishi.

Hayashi has extensive political experience, cutting his teeth while studying at Harvard by serving as a staffer for Democrat representative Stephen Neal and Republican senator William Roth Jr.

He entered politics in Japan by serving as his father's secretary in 1992, before he contested his first election in 1995.

And despite being elected from the Upper House, Hayashi has held such portfolios as defence minister (Aug to Sept 2008 under then-PM Yasuo Fukuda), minister for economic and fiscal policy (July to Sept 2009 under then-PM Taro Aso), agriculture minister (Dec 2012 to Sept 2014 and Feb to Oct 2015 under Abe), and education minister (Aug 2017 to Oct 2018 under be).

Now, as foreign minister, Hayashi's priorities will be to fortify Japan's security alliance with the United States while managing ties with China, with which Japan will celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations next year.

While Hayashi may be seen as pro-China, he gave a hint of how he views foreign policy during the September news conference. He said: "Foreign policy, at the end of the day, is something that cannot be changed dramatically overnight. Stability, continuity and realism are key words for diplomacy."

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