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Nationalism takes back seat to the economy

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

The lineup of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet seems to underline his determination to learn from his mistakes.

During his first run as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, Abe concentrated mainly on diplomacy and patriotism, even though the public was clearly focused on issues related to their livelihoods, such as the pension system and the postal reforms achieved by his popular predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.

As a consequence, the Liberal Democratic Party was crushed in the 2007 Upper House election, which eventually forced Abe to step down that year.

Five years later, media polls indicate the primary concerns of the voters are: the economy, the economy, and the economy.

With the Upper House election approaching in July, Abe this time around seems to be focusing on economic issues first by appointing most of his close aides and party heavyweights to the economic and financial posts.

Among them are Finance Minister Taro Aso, a former prime minister and advocate of public works spending, who has hinted he might delay the 2014 sales tax hike.

Abe has also created the new post of “economic revitalization minister” and given it to Akira Amari, one of his closest allies.

His hawkish diplomacy meanwhile seems to be on hold — at least for now. The new foreign and defense ministers — Fumio Kishida and Itsunori Onodera — are not regarded as outright hawks, choices that apparently reflect Abe’s newfound efforts to soften his diplomatic profile and avoid more friction with Japan’s neighbors, who still have memories of the war.

Indeed, Abe’s comments repeatedly emphasize that his focus is on economic issues and the Upper House election.

“We are still under severe scrutiny by voters. We need to make our achievements one by one,” Abe told his party during a general meeting Wednesday morning. “Our struggle will continue until” the election in July, Abe said.

But giving priority to the economy does not mean Abe has given up his long-time dream of reviving the “conservative” nationalism that he says was lost in the postwar years.

This is reflected by his selection of education minister Hakubun Shimomura, Public Security Commission Chairman Keiji Furuya and administrative reform minister Tomomi Inada, who are all known for their nationalistic outlooks and calls to revise public education.

Newly appointed LDP policy chief Sanae Takaichi is also a conservative who is still fond of making visits to war-related Yasukuni Shrine.

Yoshiyuki Inoue, who was Abe’s top secretary and closest aide during his previous stint as prime minister, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga will be the critical link in the decision-making process for the entire Cabinet.

“The Cabinet members are all competent, so whoever plays the role of coordinator will be very important,” Inoue said, while observing that the Cabinet picks reflect Abe’s expectations for the poll.

While Abe insists he didn’t pay attention to intraparty politics when forming the Cabinet, it appears that he carefully tried to head off any possibility of a rebellion.

In addition to Aso, Nobuteru Ishihara and Sadakazu Tanigaki — the new environment and justice ministers — are faction leaders.

And Abe was also careful to give three of his four rivals in the presidential election, including Ishihara, key posts in the Cabinet or the party: Yoshimasa Hayashi became farm minister and Shigeru Ishiba secretary general.