By MARI YAMAGUCHI Associated Press
TOKYO (AP) — Fumio Kishida, reelected as Japan’s prime minister on Wednesday after his governing party scored a major victory in key parliamentary elections, said the coronavirus remains the country’s most urgent issue and pledged to take steps to mend the pandemic-battered economy.
Kishida, who briefly met with U.S. President Joe Biden at the U.N. climate summit last week, said he hopes to visit Washington by the end of the year to deepen the bilateral alliance amid growing concerns about China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific.
Following his reelection by parliament on Wednesday, Kishida formed his second Cabinet by keeping all but one of the ministers he appointed when he took office on Oct. 4.
He said the pandemic, the economy and national security are his top priorities.
“Coronavirus remains the most urgent issue,” Kishida said at a late-night news conference, promising to outline new measures later this week to prepare for any surge in cases.
They will include a significant increase in capacity at hospitals so patients can find beds if infections increase considerably from an earlier wave in the summer, he said. In mid-August, when new daily cases surged to about 25,000 and health care systems virtually collapsed, many patients were unable to find hospital beds and some died at home.
The government will distribute 600,000 doses of COVID-19 oral medicines to medical facilities by the end of December, and eventually secure 1 million more doses, he said. Japan will also begin booster shots next month for anyone 18 or older who received their second dose around eight months earlier, Kishida said.
As Japan tries to gradually expand social and economic activities, Kishida said his government will gradually determine whether it is safe to allow the return of foreign tourists by experimenting with small-scale package tours. “The infections have slowed but we shouldn’t be too optimistic,” he said.
Kishida’s immediate tasks also include compiling a major economic stimulus package of about 30 trillion yen ($265 billion) that will provide cash payouts and coupons for low-income households and those with children, to be announced next week — measures some criticize as pork barrel spending. He also aims to pass an extra budget by the end of this year to fund the projects.
Kishida reiterated his pledge to create a self-reinforcing cycle of growth and economic distribution under his “new capitalism” economic policy by promoting salary increases. He plans to negotiate with labor and company management to promote pay hikes and to raise government-set salaries for jobs such as caregivers, kindergarten teachers and nurses.
“I want everyone to actually feel the fruits of growth,” he said.
As a former foreign minister, Kishida will continue to prioritize the Japan-U.S. security alliance and promote a vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” with other democracies, including Quad dialogue members the U.S., Australia and India.
Kishida has stressed the importance of a stronger military amid worries over China’s growing power and influence and North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats.
Elected just over a month ago by parliament, Kishida called a quick national election in which his Liberal Democratic Party secured 261 seats in the 465-member lower house, enough to maintain a free hand in pushing through legislation.
The Oct. 31 victory increased his grip on power and was seen as a mandate from voters for his weeks-old government. Kishida said he saw the results as a signal that voters chose stability over change.
Kishida was picked by the Liberal Democrats as a safe, conservative choice a month ago. They had feared heavy election losses if unpopular former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had stayed in power. Suga resigned after only a year in office as his popularity plunged over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his insistence on holding the Tokyo Olympics despite concerns of a virus surge.
The better-than-expected election results may give Kishida’s government more power and time to work on campaign promises, including strengthening Japan’s defense capability, experts say.
Kishida’s grip on power also may be strengthened by his Cabinet changes.
A key policy expert from his party faction, former Education Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, was appointed as the new foreign minister, while former Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi was shifted to the governing party’s No. 2 post.
Motegi replaced party heavyweight Akira Amari, who resigned from the post over his unimpressive election performance following a bribery scandal.
Kishida also appointed former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani to the newly created post of special adviser on international human rights issues, focusing on Chinese actions in its western Xinjiang region and in Hong Kong.
Though many of Kishida’s ministers are first-timers, key posts went to members of influential party wings, including those led by conservative ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former Finance Minister Taro Aso.
He also vowed to step up efforts to achieve his conservative party’s long-cherished goal of revising the U.S.-drafted pacifist Constitution.