Watanabe named new reform chief

Abe quick to fill post Sata exited

by Hiroko Nakata

A day after one of his Cabinet members resigned over a political funding scandal, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday appointed Yoshimi Watanabe as the new administrative reform minister.

Prior to his appointment, Watanabe, 54, served as senior vice minister for economic and fiscal policy in the Cabinet Office. He has also been a longtime member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s administrative reform committee.

For Abe, who has been suffering declining public support, the move is meant to underscore his commitment to reforms that he hopes will reduce the country’s heavy debts and provide a lift to the economy.

Abe’s three-month-old Cabinet suffered its latest blow Wednesday when then reform minister Genichiro Sata resigned after admitting accounting irregularities by one of his political support organizations.

He was the second high-level Abe appointee to quit under fire in the past two weeks. Last week, Masaaki Honma stepped down as Abe’s tax commission chief, after reports that he was living with a lover at a government-owned condominium despite advocating a selloff of such properties.

Speaking out Thursday on behalf of Watanabe, Abe said: “Above all, he has the power to break through (the logjam), and that power is necessary to carry out administrative reforms.”

Watanabe visited Abe at the prime minister’s office in the morning and accepted the post. The appointment took effect after an attestation ceremony at the Imperial Palace in the afternoon.

“The post is extremely important to the Abe Cabinet because we have to carry out reforms,” Watanabe told reporters after meeting Abe. “I am determined to initiate reforms actively as a member of the Cabinet.”

Watanabe said he will be in charge of administrative reforms of the central and local governments, deregulation, reforming the civil service, revitalizing regional economies and consolidating prefectures into larger administrative units.

Later at a news conference, Watanabe said Abe is prioritizing reforming the education system, the civil service and the social insurance agency. “It is natural that the public will judge our efforts on these reforms at the Upper House election (in July),” he said.

Watanabe’s vacant senior vice ministerial post at the Cabinet Office will be filled by House of Representatives lawmaker Hideaki Omura, 46, of the LDP.

Watanabe has been elected to the House of Representatives four times since 1996 from the No. 3 constituency in Tochigi Prefecture. The oldest son of the late Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe, he is said to be well-versed in financial matters.

The Democratic Party of Japan said Thursday it will grill Abe at next year’s ordinary Diet session, which opens in late January, over his original appointment of Sata.

The DPJ will also push Sata to resign his Diet seat.

Information from Kyodo added