Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reshuffled his Cabinet on Monday and gave key posts to three possible contenders to succeed him in the country’s top job.
Koizumi’s choices raise the curtain on the race of prime ministerial hopefuls that is expected to culminate next September when his term as Liberal Democratic Party president expires.
Koizumi has pledged to step down at that time, which means he also will leave the job of prime minister.
The three anointed candidates for Koizumi’s job are deputy LDP Secretary General Shinzo Abe, who was appointed chief Cabinet secretary; Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Taro Aso, who received the foreign minister’s portfolio; and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, who has been reappointed.
During a news conference later in the day, Koizumi said his new Cabinet was formed to push his reform agenda further, and hinted that he would not name anyone who does not follow his administrative reform initiatives as a possible successor.
“I don’t think anyone who steps out of this reform line will become president (of the LDP),” he said, noting that he formed the new Cabinet to continue with his “small government” reforms.
“Everyone who joined the Cabinet this time is eager not to stop the reforms,” the prime minister said.
Soon after the LDP won a landslide victory in the House of Representatives election on Sept. 11, Koizumi indicated that he would appoint politicians eager to become the next prime minister to key posts when he reshuffled the Cabinet and the LDP executive.
Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, another politician considered a possible future prime minister, was not given a Cabinet post — a development observers see as a setback for Fukuda.
He had been expected to try to improve strained diplomatic ties with China if he had been given a key Cabinet post.
In contrast, the appointment of Abe, a conservative with tough positions on North Korea and China, as chief Cabinet secretary could further harden Japan’s diplomatic stances toward those countries.
Abe has repeatedly called for economic sanctions against North Korea over the unresolved issue of the abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s, while praising Koizumi’s contentious visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which has long been a thorny issue in Japan’s relationship with China and South Korea.
Abe said he has visited Yasukuni Shrine based on his private beliefs, hinting he will keep visiting the Shinto shrine even in his new capacity.
“I’d like to keep holding this sentiment as I have done so far,” Abe said during a news conference in which he announced the rest of the new Cabinet lineup.
Abe, who enjoys wide public popularity because of his hardline stances on diplomatic issues, has long been regarded as the front runner to become the next prime minister.
This is Abe’s first Cabinet post and getting a position in this reshuffle was considered a must for him to remain a contender to succeed Koizumi.
The post of chief Cabinet secretary, often called “the linchpin of the Cabinet” and the prime minister’s right-hand man, is the top government spokesman as well as the main coordinator of policies and interests among government ministries and ruling parties.
As one of the top policy priorities of the new Cabinet, Koizumi cited reform of the social security system, including public pensions and health insurance.
“It’s easy to only discuss (social security) benefits, but you have to think about who shoulders the burdens, too,” he said.
He added that his Cabinet will push for reforms to lower administrative costs so that the overall financial burden for taxpayers will be reduced.
In the past, Koizumi has repeatedly surprised political watchers by handing out appointments to young politicians and people from the public sector, breaking a long LDP tradition of making choices that follow the lines of seniority and maintain factional harmony.
But this time, the only unusual appointment was of former Sophia University professor Kuniko Inoguchi, elected to her first Diet term last month, to the post of state minister in charge of issues related to population and gender equality. There had been some speculation that she would be tapped as foreign minister.
Inoguchi and other new LDP lawmakers elected to office in the Sept. 11 election have received a great deal of media exposure.
The appointment of the female scholar — a mother of two daughters — as minister in charge of gender issues rather than offering her a post in international relations, her academic specialty, may give the media even more to say, according to some observers.
“I have been told to tackle issues closely related to (everyday) life,” Inoguchi told a news conference.
In forming his latest Cabinet, Koizumi paid attention to appointment requests from the LDP and its coalition partner, New Komeito.
Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Kazuo Kitagawa, the only Cabinet member from New Komeito, retained his post as the party had requested.
House of Councilors member Tetsuo Kutsukake was appointed as chairman of the National Public Safety Commission.
Seeking local support
New Defense Agency Director General Fukushiro Nukaga said Monday he hopes to win over local communities to government plans to realign the U.S. military forces in Japan amid growing opposition from host areas.
“Starting with Okinawa, we will explain the plans carefully to everyone in communities where there are bases to try to gain their understanding,” Nukaga, 61, said after being appointed for the second time to the post of defense chief.