TOKYO (AP) — Japan's new prime minister interrupted his first day of election campaigning and returned to Tokyo on Tuesday to deal with rising regional tensions following North Korea's test-firing of a missile earlier in the day.
Fumio Kishida's campaign was already off to a rocky start with media polls showing his support rating sliding. Tuesday was the first official day of campaigning for nationwide legislative elections scheduled for Oct. 31.
“I will drastically strengthen our defense capabilities. The Kishida administration is determined to protect our land, territorial sea and air space as well as the people’s lives and assets no matter what," Kishida said after returning to the capital.
Kishida, a former foreign minister from Hiroshima, was previously considered dovish and advocated a nuclear weapons ban. He has increasingly turned hawkish, apparently to gain support from conservative heavyweights within his governing Liberal Democratic Party, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He has called for bolstering Japan's defense budget and capabilities.
Kishida was informed of the missile launch after his opening campaign speech in Fukushima, where a nuclear plant was destroyed by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011. After another speech in the nearby city of Sendai, he canceled the remainder of his itinerary in the region.
Kishida became prime minister in early October shortly after winning his conservative party's leadership contest. He dissolved the lower house of Japan's two-chamber Diet, or parliament, last Friday and called new elections, saying he wanted a mandate from the public for his new government.
Kishida said he aims for the Liberal Democrats and their junior partner, Komeito, to win a majority of seats in the 465-member chamber.
Out of 1,051 candidates, only 186, or 17.7%, are women, despite calls for political parties to increase the number of female lawmakers to promote gender equality. Japan ranked 120th out of 156 nations in this year's gender gap report by the World Economic Forum.
Major issues in the campaign include COVID-19 response measures and revitalizing the pandemic-battered economy, as well as diplomatic and security issues linked to China's growing strength and influence and North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.
In its roughly two weeks in power, Kishida’s government has seen its support ratings slide to 46%, down 3 percentage points from a week earlier, according to an NHK public television telephone survey of 2,943 respondents from Oct. 15 to 17.
The survey, which did not provide a margin of error, also showed support for Kishida’s party dipped to 38.8% from 41.2%.
Kishida said his government plans to focus on tackling the pandemic and policies to narrow the gap between the rich and poor.
“This election is about your choice of Japan’s future,” he said in his Fukushima speech.
In response to the North Korean missile launch, Kishida said he has instructed the government to consider all options, including allowing Japanese forces to acquire a pre-emptive strike capability. Critics say such a policy would violate Japan's war-renouncing Constitution, which limits the use of force to self-defense.
Opposition parties have accused the governing party under its two previous leaders — former Prime Ministers Abe and Yoshihide Suga — of worsening social and economic disparities and have called for a change of leadership.
Yukio Edano, head of the largest opposition group, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said only major companies prospered under the Liberal Democrats' leadership, and criticized the government's handling of the coronavirus outbreak as slow and ineffective.
His party and several other smaller opposition groups have formed a united front to back mutual candidates to increase the chances of winning in small constituencies.
Kishida's party has ruled Japan almost without interruption since World War II, while opposition forces have struggled to rally voter support, especially in the last decade.
Support for Edano’s party is much lower than for the Liberal Democrats at 6.6%, while 36.2% of respondents said they are undecided.