Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Ancestors Were Gung-ho Businessmen in Taiwan and Manchuria

Fumio Kishida, 64, became Japan’s 100th prime minister and the 64th under the modern constitution.

By Jun Tanaka


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A Family of Pioneers from the Meiji Era

Fumio Kishida, 64, became Japan’s 100th prime minister and the 64th under the modern constitution. A third-generation politician with a very serious and placid demeanor, he has been called the “Prince” of Kochikai, a prestigious faction of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Surprisingly, though, Fumio’s grandfather, great-grandfather, and their brothers had an audacious pioneering spirit, leaving their hometown in Hiroshima before the war to make a fortune in new land, including Hokkaido, Taiwan, and Manchuria.

Heads to Japan’s Fresh New Territory, Taiwan

The Kishida family had been farming for generations under the trade name “Atarashiya” in Okuya Village, Kamo District, Aki Province (now Okuya, Shiwa-cho, Higashi-Hiroshima City, Hiroshima Prefecture). Prime Minister Fumio’s great-grandfather, Ikutaro Kishida (1867-1908), born during the Meiji Restoration, seemed to have business acumen, and from around 1891, began shipping agricultural machinery, seeds, and kimonos to settlements in Hokkaido as a wholesaler, and sold Hokkaido marine products such as kelp in Hiroshima.

In February 1896, to further expand business, Ikutaro moved to Keelung, the gateway into Taiwan, with his wife Sumi and their two-month-old son. The Sino-Japanese War had ended a year earlier in April 1895, and Taiwan (including the Penghu Islands) had just been ceded from the Qing to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The Governor-General of Taiwan had begun its rule only six months earlier. This was long before Keelung’s port became one of Asia’s leading modern harbors.

During the time of active anti-Japanese armed movements by the indigenous people, Ikutaro did not hesitate to move to Taiwan, still an undeveloped region, and began selling timber and kimonos. He foresaw that as infrastructure such as ports and railways, and towns were developed in the colony, demand for timber was sure to rise.

Japanese settlers were also expected to increase. Spreading the custom of wearing kimonos among the Taiwanese people was believed to be effective in enhancing their awareness as subjects of the Japanese Empire. At 28, Ikutaro opened Kishida Zaimoku-ten, a timber store, and Kishida Gofuku-ten, a high-grade kimono store, in central Keelung.

Former Kishida Gofuku-ten Under Spotlight in Keelung

Kishida Gofuku-ten’s over century-old two-story brick building in Yoshishige-cho (now the intersection of Xin’eri Road and Yier Road in Zhongzheng District), a busy shopping area known as Keelung Ginza, is still being used as a store.

Despite some alterations on the roof and facade, the flamboyant Tatsuno-style neo-Renaissance architecture, with its red brick walls and white granite banding, retains its overall appearance from the Meiji period. Old photographs show a large signboard with the “キ” (Ki) trademark (for Kishida and Keelung) on the now absent tower section, suggesting the building had been a landmark of Keelung Ginza.

However, Ikutaro’s family returned to Japan in 1899, after just four years in Taiwan. It is not clear why they suddenly returned amidst thriving business. Taiwan’s United Daily assumed they may have contracted malaria, an endemic that caused several thousands to 10 million deaths each year, and returned for a change of air. Later, Ikutaro moved to Manchuria (now northeastern China) in 1906 after the Russo-Japanese War, and acquired a 15,000 square meter land in Dalian, but died suddenly in 1908 at just 40.

Now a Bakery on the First Floor, a Restaurant on the Second Floor

In 1897, Ikutaro called his younger brothers, Taichiro Kishida (date of birth and death unknown) and Kotaro Kishida (1872 – date of death unknown) over to Taiwan. After Ikutaro returned to Japan in 1899, Taichiro took over the kimono store and Kotaro the timber store. The brothers eventually expanded their business, including liquor wholesale and precious metal sales. Taichiro also began a café, Kishida Kissabu, on the west side extension of Kishida Gofuku-ten.

In the 1922 edition of “Nangoku no Jinshi,” Taiwan’s who’s who directory (published by Taiwan Jinbutsu-sha), both Taichiro and Kotaro are listed as prominent persons. In 1913, the Kishida brothers received a grant from the Taiwan Governor-General’s Office for a government-owned moor in Karenko Prefecture (now Hualien County), and established the Karenko Prefecture Branch of the timber store, Kishida Zaimoku-ten. They provided a one-stop solution from cutting quality trees to lumber sawing, and they became one of the leading timber dealers in Taiwan.

The Taiwanese media and Keelung Mayor Lin Yu-chang, 50, have been actively advertising, “The existing red brick building of the Kishida Gofuku-ten was built by Kishida Ikutaro, the great-grandfather of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio!” But in fact, it was built by Taichiro, the prime minister’s great uncle. Kishida Kissabu café was also started by Taichiro instead of Ikutaro. Keelung City was undergoing urban development when Ikutaro lived there, and the family residence and stores had to relocate many times because of rezoning.

As of 2021, Kishida Gofuku-ten in Keelung has bakery Mita on the first floor and Taiwanese-style Italian restaurant Yun Chen on the second floor. After the war, the former Kishida cafe became a Chinese pub, the Little Shanghai Restaurant, run by mainland Chinese immigrants until 1951. From 1963, it was the Independent Bookstore (closed in 2019 and currently being restored by Keelung City).

Member of the Diet While Running a Business in Manchuria

Ikutaro’s eldest son and grandfather of Prime Minister Fumio, Masaki Kishida (1895-1961) lost his father when he was 13, but studies hard and graduates the Faculty of Law at Kyoto Imperial University. He was an elite who passed the higher civil service exam (employment test for higher civil servants) while still at university. Yet, after graduation, he takes up real estate business, instead of becoming a civil servant.

In 1928, at age 33, Masaki ran for the House of Representatives election from his hometown, Hiroshima 1st district, and won a seat. He entered the world of politics as a member of the Rikken Seiyukai (Association of Friends of Constitutional Government) party.

However, instead of focusing on politics, his mind drifts towards Manchuria, where his father spent his last years. In 1931, two years after he became a lawmaker, the Japanese military caused the Manchurian Incident and established the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932. Japanese investment was needed in Manchukuo, working to build a new nation.

In 1933, Masaki moved to Dalian in Manchuria, while retaining his seat in the parliament. But the Imperial Diet held three-month-long plenary sessions each year, so did he temporarily return to Japan each time the Diet was held, including extraordinary sessions? The current “Rules of the House of Representatives” prohibit members from taking over seven days of leave of absence.

Under the Treaty of Portsmouth following the Russo-Japanese War, Japan acquired from Russia the Kwantung Leased Territory at the tip of the Liaodong Peninsula, the South Manchurian Branch of the Chinese Eastern Railway (later to become the South Manchuria Railway), and annexed land along the railway. Japan had embarked on the colonial management of Manchuria.

The port city of Dalniy on the Liaodong Peninsula, renamed Dalian, developed as the sea gateway to Manchuria, and by the end of the war in 1945, there were over 200,000 Japanese settlers. Masaki began his real estate and department store business in Dalian and Mukden (now Shenyang), and in 1933, he established the Kikuya Department Store in Dalian.

Kikuya Department Store Beats Mitsukoshi in Annual Sales

Kikuya Department Store was built on Dalian’s busiest Naniwa Street (current Tianjin Street). It probably used a part of the 15,000 square meters of land Ikutaro’s father acquired in 1906, a year after the Treaty of Portsmouth.

The sleek Western-style building in reinforced concrete, with three stories above ground and one below and a total floor space of 5,200 square meters, was one of Dalian’s three major department stores before the war, along with Mitsukoshi and Liaodong. However, Masaki, as a member of the Diet, returned to Japan in 1936 and focused on political activities.

His younger brother Masajiro Kishida (1897-1979), the senior managing director, took over the management of the department store. Masajiro turned out to be a savvy businessman, and in 1939, the Kikuya Department Store marked number-one annual sales (8 million JPY, about 3.2 billion JPY today) in Dalian, topping Mitsukoshi Department Store.

Besides Dalian, Kikuya also opened a department store in the ancient city of Mukden.

Masaki built a three-story reinforced concrete building that faced the roundabout Heian Square (now Minzhu Square) at the end of Heian Dori (now Minzhu Road), running 600 meters southward from Mukden Station. There are few records on Mukden Kikuya, and details are unknown. Yet, Mukden was comparable with Dalian, with over 150,000 Japanese residing when the war ended. In addition to Kikuya Department Store, other Japanese department stores such as Manmo, Shichifukuya, Union, and Minakai were thriving in the city.

Former Kikuya Department Store Now Operates as Dalian’s Leading Department Store

The Dalian Kikuya Department Store building Masaki built still stands in 2021.

With the World War II defeat in 1945, the Kishida family left Dalian and returned to Japan. The robust Kikuya Department Store building was confiscated by the Kwantung District Public Security Bureau of the Chinese Government and served as a commercial facility called “Dalian Yuhua Business Center.”

When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, it became a state-owned department store, and changed its name frequently to “Kwantung Department Store Company,” “Lüda Department Store Company,” “Dalian Tianjin Street Department Store,” “Dalian Department Store,” and “Tianbai Department Store.” In 1981, the fourth and fifth floors were added.

In 1987, an annex was added on the south side across Tianjin Street, making the total floor area over 10,000 square meters. In 2007, the building was expanded to seven floors and renovated as “Xintianbai” by private capital. The building was later designated as an important protected building by the Dalian City, and in 2020, the exterior was renewed with a retro-design unrelated to Kikuya.

However, the building’s foundation and framework are still based on the Kikyuya Department Store built in 1933. In China, when historical architectures are restored, it is common for them to be modified to match the image requested by the client or the local government, in disregard of the original design.

Writer Ryotaro Shiba wrote of the Meiji people in his novel, Clouds Above the Hill, that they “pursued only one goal, and never thought of doubting that goal. The brightness of this age probably came from this kind of optimism. With the disposition of men in such an era, these optimists looked straight ahead and walked on.” Just like that, the men of the Kishida Family born in the Meiji Era, left Japan and succeeded in business in Taiwan and Manchuria with their lively optimism.


Post-War Masaki Kishida Acts as the Brain Behind Nobusuke Kishi

Being almost the same age, and sharing the experience of life in Manchuria (both resided in 1936), Masaki became close friends with Nobusuke Kishi (1896-1987), Shinzo Abe’s grandfather, who later became prime minister.

Kishi was an elite bureaucrat in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (now Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry), and was stationed in Manchukuo from 1936 to 1939 as a high-ranking official. He later became the deputy director of the General Affairs Agency, the center of Manchukuo’s national government, and was instrumental in the management of Manchukuo with his bold promotion of a controlled and planned economy, and the opium policy. He passionately stated, “The Manchurian problem is Japan’s greatest problem since its dawn, and we must risk our lives and tackle it with courage.”

Masaki was elected to the House of Representatives for six consecutive terms until 1946 and served as a naval councilor (equivalent to Parliamentary Secretary) in the first Fumimaro Konoe Cabinet (1937-1939) and as naval vice minister in the Kuniaki Koiso Cabinet (1944-45) during the war. After the war, he was purged from public service. When the ban was lifted, he returned to politics in 1953, gaining a seat in the House of Representatives. He served a term of two years as a Liberal Party member.

Kishi, who was imprisoned as a Class A war criminal, also ran in the same election from the Liberal Party and got elected. Kishi then served as the first secretary general of the LDP in 1955, minister of foreign affairs in 1956, and prime minister from 1957 to 1960.

According to Memoir of Nobusuke Kishi (in Japanese, by Nobusuke Kishi, Kazuo Yatsugi, and Takashi Ito, from Bungeishunju), Masaki formed the so-called “Kishi faction” within the Liberal Party with those who also made a comeback after being purged, like himself, and became the brain behind Nobusuke Kishi. The faction members included Etsusaburo Shiina (1898-1979, Kishi’s right-hand man, later Chief Cabinet Secretary), Shojiro Kawashima (1890-1970, later Vice President of the LDP), Munenori Akagi (1904-1993, later Chief Cabinet Secretary), and Takeo Fukuda (1905-1995, later Prime Minister).

Yet, Masaki loses consecutive elections in 1955 and 1958, and retires from politics without becoming a cabinet member under Kishi.

Prime Minister Kishida’s Connections with Taiwan and China

With Japan’s defeat, the Kishida Family lost all the businesses and vast wealth they accumulated in Taiwan and Manchuria.

Masaki’s eldest son and Fumio’s father, Fumitake Kishida (1926-1992, member of the House of Representatives), attended the former Tokyo High School and the Faculty of Law at Tokyo Imperial University before entering the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Both father and son spent their youth in the Onden (Harajuku) area of Tokyo, at their family home, with no particular experience in Taiwan or Manchuria.

Since first elected as a member of the House of Representatives in 1993, Fumio has frequently visited Taiwan with Shinzo Abe and others as a member of the LDP’s “Junior Lawmakers’ Group for Economic and Cultural Exchange between Japan and Taiwan (Japan-Taiwan Junior Lawmakers’ Group)” and has deepened his understanding of Taiwan through exchanges with President Lee Teng-hui (1923-2020) et al. During his election campaign for LDP presidency, he proposed the creation of a new post for human rights affairs officer (assistant to the prime minister) with China in mind, and stated that he would “welcome” Taiwan’s bid to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Meanwhile, those within the Kochikai (Kishida faction), where Kishida belongs, are mostly pro-Chinese, and Fumio has long been the aide of the 81-year-old Makoto Koga (former Kochikai head, LDP Secretary General), the leading pro-China legislator. Fumio is currently the chair of the Hiroshima Prefecture Japan-China Friendship Association and acting chair of Japan-China Cultural Exchange Promotion Association (JCCEPA), one of the eight Japan-China friendship organizations.

On his website, Fumio states a textbook message: “As authoritarian regimes expand, we will resolutely respond to stability in the Taiwan Straits, democracy in Hong Kong, and human rights issues of the Uyghurs. With the Japan-U.S. alliance as the foundation, we will defend universal values such as democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, and contribute to the stability of the international order.”

It is not so simple as being either pro-Taiwan or pro-China. However, the story of Prime Minister Kishida will become more intriguing if he can strip off the “Prince” mask and show his enthusiastic side, like the men of the Kishida family before the war, full of venturous spirit.

This is a translation of the Japanese article posted on Bunshun Online on October 11, 2021.


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