Exclusive: Prime Minister Fumio Kishida Is Turning a Once Pacifist Japan Into a Military Power

Exclusive: Prime Minister Fumio Kishida Is Turning a Once Pacifist Japan Into a Military Power

The official residence of Japan’s Prime Minister is a spooky place. Inspired by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the stone and brick mansion in central Tokyo had been around for only three years when young naval officers charged in and assassinated Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai in 1932. Four years later, Prime Minister Keisuke Okada was forced to hide in a closet during another attempted coup d’état, which killed five and left bullet holes that still pepper the building’s Art Deco facade.

The bad energy became transpacific when, in 1992, U.S. President George H.W. Bush became ill during a banquet here, vomiting onto the lap of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa before passing out. Despite a reported exorcism by Shinto priests, an association with malevolent spirits was sealed, and the residence went unoccupied for nine years until Prime Minister Fumio Kishida moved in soon after taking power in October 2021.

“I have been warned by my predecessors that you will encounter ghosts in this building,” Kishida, 65, tells TIME in an exclusive interview inside the red-carpeted residence, gazing around at the expressionist wall motifs, which include at least one rather menacing concrete gargoyle. “Of course, it is an old building, so I hear sounds from time to time. But fortunately, I have yet to encounter a ghost.”

Photograph by Ko Tsuchiya for TIME

Kishida is preoccupied by more earthly issues. In Japan, he has launched a “new model of capitalism” to grow the middle class through redistributive policies. Overseas, he has set about revolutionizing the East Asian nation’s foreign relations: soothing historical grievances with South Korea, strengthening security alliances with the U.S. and others, and boosting defense spending by over 50%. Buoyed by a White House eager for influential partners to check China’s growing clout, Kishida has set about turning the world’s No. 3 economy back into a global power with a military presence to match.

But that’s not to say Kishida is untroubled by ghosts. His family hails from Japan’s southern city of Hiroshima, which he still represents as a lawmaker, and he lost several relatives to the atomic bomb dropped by the U.S. in 1945. His earliest memories include sitting on his grandmother’s knee in the beleaguered city and hearing horrific tales of local suffering. “The unspeakable devastation experienced by Hiroshima and its people was inscribed vividly in my memory,” he says. “This childhood experience has been a major driver of my pursuit … of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Read More: After the Bomb: Survivors of the Atomic Blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki Share Their Stories

It’s to Hiroshima that Kishida welcomes leaders of the G7 from May 19 to 21, when he’ll hope to leverage the city’s tragic history to convince the world’s most powerful democracies that only collective resolve can face down the authoritarian threat of an increasingly belligerent Russia, China, and North Korea. Tokyo may be 5,000 miles from Kyiv, but the war in Ukraine has alerted Japan to a more perilous world, not least since Japan remains entangled in land and sea territorial disputes with Russia, and regularly sees North Korean ballistic missiles flying overhead. Even more worrisome for Japan has been China’s aggression against Taiwan, the self-ruling island that authoritarian President Xi Jinping has repeatedly vowed to bring to heel. When Beijing launched military drills last summer to protest U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, five missiles fell into the waters of Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, through which Chinese naval vessels and aircraft regularly intrude.

Prime Minister Kishida walks past a Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) Type 19 155 mm wheeled self-propelled howitzer and a Type 12 surface-to-ship missile as he inspects equipment during a review at JGSDF Camp Asaka in Tokyo on Nov. 27, 2021.

Kiyoshi Ota—Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Against this backdrop, Kishida in December unveiled Japan’s biggest military buildup since World War II, mirroring upticks in defense spending across Europe, including Germany, which like Japan was humbled by that war. The commitment would raise defense spending to 2% of GDP by 2027, giving Japan the world’s third largest defense budget. And while previous Japanese leaders dithered over imposing international sanctions, Kishida has joined U.S.-led measures with alacrity.

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It’s a transformation that had long been touted by Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who belonged to the same right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and was assassinated during a campaign stop in July. But while Abe’s hawkish reputation was divisive, Kishida’s dovish persona has enabled him to enact security reform without significant pushback.

Still, Japan’s martial resurgence isn’t without controversy. The nation has a pacifist constitution, and critics say its military buildup pours fuel on an already combustive regional security picture. And given that China is Japan’s top trading partner, it’s unclear how Kishida can fund an ambitious domestic agenda while turning the screws on America’s superpower rival, which has proved all too willing to mete out economic retribution. More fundamentally, some believe that Japan’s rearmament chafes with Kishida’s longstanding pledges to work toward a nuclear-free world. The Prime Minister, for his part, says his only goal is to prevent tragedies like Hiroshima unfolding once again: “Today’s Ukraine could be tomorrow’s East Asia.”

Kishida’s tenure has already encountered drama that belies his reputation as a bland functionary. On April 15, Kishida narrowly avoided joining the ghosts stalking the Prime Minister’s residence when a homemade pipe bomb was hurled at him during a campaign speech, injuring a policeman. “I am living in the world of politics,” he shrugs when asked about the incident. “All sorts of events and developments could happen.”

Wakayama police restrain a man who allegedly threw explosives where Kishida was scheduled to give a speech for by-election of Lower House, in Wakayama City on April 15.

The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP

When he took office 18 months ago, he was thought of as a steady but uninspiring politician, unscarred by scandal but lacking major accomplishments. His father and grandfather were both lawmakers, and he spent part of his childhood in the U.S., attending a public school in Queens. Classes were filled with children of myriad cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and Kishida says he found communication “very challenging.” But because of this, “I was reminded of the importance of listening carefully to the views of others,” he says. “As a child, I was inspired by what makes America the United States, which is respect for freedom and an abundance of energy.”

Kishida was an average student, failing his law school entrance exam three times. After cutting his teeth in banking, Kishida entered politics in 1993. He rose to various cabinet posts and was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs in 2012, serving in the position for five years, a Japanese record. He forged a reputation as a consensus builder, coordinating policy in back rooms by deliberating with various factions. Aides say Kishida takes advice, but once his mind is made up, he doesn’t waver.

As Prime Minister, he’s proved himself a prodigious worker. Kishida has made a dizzying 16 overseas trips since taking office. The day after he sat down with TIME inside his official residence’s vaulted Great Hall,  » …
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