Reward and competition -- those may be the key words to describe Monday's Cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
For example, Seiken Sugiura, who was deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary in the previous Cabinet, was given the post of justice minister. Sugiura has long helped Koizumi, serving as a close aide at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence.
Toshihiro Nikai, who headed the Liberal Democratic Party’s Election Bureau and was a key figure in orchestrating the party’s landslide victory in the Sept. 11 general election, landed the prestigious post of minister of economy, trade and industry.
The new financial services minister, Kaoru Yosano, worked tirelessly as LDP policy affairs chief to achieve Koizumi’s postal privatization reform amid strong party resistance.
In contrast, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, who exerted much influence while holding the position until his resignation in May 2004, was not included in the new Cabinet, despite being widely viewed as a contender for the prime ministership.
Fukuda has been critical of Koizumi for damaging Sino-Japanese ties by repeatedly visiting Yasukuni Shrine.
“I don’t think Koizumi can stand appointing those who oppose him,” Narita observed.
The other three in the successor race have been been loyal to Koizumi so far and all were given key posts in the new Cabinet — newly appointed Foreign Minister Taro Aso, reappointed Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and new Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe.
The LDP’s sweeping victory in the Sept. 11 election demonstrated Koizumi’s strong popularity among voters, and many among political circles say that if he were to suggest a successor, it would greatly influence who becomes the next prime minister.
Narita said Koizumi is now trying to control the trio by having them compete with each other in the Cabinet to demonstrate their ability to follow up on his reform push.
“That’s quite a smart way” to control them, Narita said.
But that’s not to say that the trio, as well as other Cabinet appointments such as farm minister Shoichi Nakagawa, are simply “yes men” who answer to every beck and call. They are well-versed in the roles they are expected to perform, as even Koizumi’s political rivals acknowledge.
“I think (the lineup) shows (Koizumi’s) earnestness” to put the finishing touches on his reform agenda during his remaining time in office, remarked Seiji Maehara, head of the Democratic Party of Japan. “I think he’s appointed strong, influential people.”
But Narita also pointed out that if Koizumi’s tactics backfire for some reason, Fukuda, who won’t be linked to the Cabinet, could be seen as Koizumi’s antithesis and thus re-emerge as a candidate for prime minister.