The Yomiuri ShimbunPrime Minister Shinzo Abe gave priority to a sense of stability by appointing several lawmakers with previous ministerial experience who can hit the ground running in the reshuffled Cabinet he unveiled Thursday.
Abe has assembled a solid, talented lineup through a major reshuffle featuring 14 changes of personnel, including a new position for Katsunobu Kato, former minister for promoting dynamic engagement of all citizens. Only six lawmakers were given their first ministerial post, including Tetsuma Esaki, a former state minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism minister who was made minister of state for Okinawa and northern territories affairs.
This is the fewest newcomers in the four cabinet reshuffles undertaken by Abe since he began his second stint as prime minister in December 2012.
The faction with the largest number of ministers — four — is the Kishida faction. There are also four ministers not aligned with any faction. The Kishida faction is the fourth-largest in the Liberal Democratic Party. Observers believe Abe showed careful consideration for Kishida, a former foreign minister and defense minister, whose assignment was considered the main focus of the reshuffle.
Every faction except the Ishihara faction has at least one minister, and the top LDP leadership positions also have been reflected in an overall balance among the factions.
The Cabinet lineup contains a noticeable number of lawmakers close to Shigeru Ishiba, a former regional revitalization minister. In addition to Ken Saito, a former state minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries from the Ishiba faction, first-time ministerial posts were given to Hachiro Okonogi, acting chairman of the LDP’s Diet Affairs Committee; and Hiroshi Kajiyama, a former state minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism.
Ishiba, who is positioning himself to succeed Abe and has an eye on the LDP presidential election set for September 2018, has been outspoken in his criticism of the prime minister. “It seems Abe is trying to rein in Ishiba,” a former cabinet minister said.
Taro Kono, a former chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, was tapped to replace Kishida as foreign minister. Kono has a good reputation for being able to clearly convey his opinion, but according to a government source, he also “comes with some risks.” In the past, Kono called for ending Japan’s reliance on nuclear power.
While Kono was chair of the commission during the third Abe Cabinet, he did not blurt out any inflammatory remarks. Kono’s father, former House of Representatives Speaker Yohei Kono, has been critical of Abe’s national security policies, but observers believe this is unlikely to present a problem.
“Taro’s views on national security policies are realistic. They’re close to the prime minister’s,” an Abe aide said.
The Cabinet contains just two women — Yoko Kamikawa, who returns to the position of justice minister, and Seiko Noda, a former posts and telecommunications minister who will serve as the internal affairs and communications minister.
Aura of favoritism
Abe hopes to sweep away the cloud of favoritism enveloping his administration by appointing to his new Cabinet Noda, who is one of the representatives of an anti-mainstream faction in the Liberal Democratic Party.
Since the launch of his second Cabinet in 2012, Abe has tightly managed his administration by quelling forces critical of him within the LDP. However, his Cabinet’s approval rating has plunged in recent months following a string of blunders, including a recent scandal involving former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, entrusted by Abe to hold an important post. Concern has mounted that Abe’s declining numbers could also affect the party’s support rate, portending a potential outburst of discontent with Abe’s dominance over the LDP.
Noda publicly rebuked Abe’s 2015 reelection to the LDP presidency without a vote being held. She even considered contesting the election herself. According to a senior LDP official, Abe hopes appointing Noda as internal affairs and communications minister will show he “has adopted a more modest approach and will listen to the opinions of those who disagree with him.”
It was thought that Shigeru Ishiba, former regional revitalization minister and an ardent Abe critic, would likely reject a Cabinet appointment. Noda “was singled out because she entered the Diet at the same time” as Abe, a midranking LDP lawmaker said. Abe eventually offered her the role at the internal affairs and communication ministry, which has jurisdiction over the postal service and telecommunications, areas of deep interest to Noda throughout her career.
Former Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, named education, culture, sports, science and technology minister in the cabinet reshuffle, has likewise never seen eye to eye with Abe on economic policy. Although both were elected from Yamaguchi Prefecture, their relationship has at times been awkward; in the Shimonoseki mayoral election held last March, Abe’s former secretary defeated a candidate supported by Hayashi.
“Abe prioritized ensuring a sense of stability and ending confusion within the education ministry,” a close aide to the prime minister said.
However, it remains unclear if the appointments of Noda and Hayashi will boost the administration. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso and other key figures retained their positions in the reshuffle. A former cabinet minister criticized the retention of the party heavyweights, saying, “The public will think nothing has changed if Suga and Aso stay in office.”
Hayashi and Itsunori Onodera, returning to the role of defense minister, are among the ministers from the second Abe Cabinet making a comeback. The second Abe Cabinet coincided with the LDP’s return to power in 2012. Noda was also chair of the party’s General Council at the time.