One word was probably in the mind of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when he reshuffled the Cabinet and the Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership on Wednesday: stability.
In his first Cabinet reorganization since winning a second term as prime minister in December 2012, Abe retained six of his original 18 ministers, defying growing frustration among rank-and-file members desperately yearning for a prestigious Cabinet post.
In addition, Abe tapped five women as ministers — equaling the record set by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — to refresh the conservative LDP’s image by reaffirming his commitment to promoting the status of women in Japan’s male-dominated society.
This reduced the number of posts available for the party’s male Cabinet aspirants and is likely to fan frustration among its most ambitious members.
Still, Abe appears to have placed priority on maintaining the stability of the current administration, which has enjoyed surprisingly high popularity with interested voters since its inception.
Abe’s first Cabinet lineup lasted for more than 600 days without a change, making it the longest-serving Cabinet in postwar Japan. This was credited by one official to their ability to keep their feet out of their mouths.
“Few ministers have made gaffes and they all have handled questions in the Diet well,” a high-ranking government official close to Abe said. “I think that’s one of the reasons this Cabinet lasted for such a long period without getting into trouble.”
Some members of Abe’s first Cabinet, such as education minister Hakubun Shimomura and internal affairs minister Yoshitaka Shindo, have right-leaning tendencies and were seen as historical revisionists.
But, fearing the damaging potential of gaffes, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga banned ministers other than Abe and himself from discussing sensitive historical issues in public. These sensitive issues included those involving war-linked Yasukuni Shrine and the Imperial Japanese Army’s “comfort women” brothel system before and during World War II.
Cabinet members were only allowed to repeat the official government line on those issues — usually word for word — under the ban, which is expected to be maintained in the new Cabinet.
During a news conference Wednesday, Suga said all of the Cabinet members must follow this rule.
Views on issues related to history “will be all unified under the prime minister and the chief Cabinet secretary,” he said. “There will be no personal opinions as individuals. There will only be a view of the Cabinet.”Although Abe tried to retain stability in his reshuffle, the road ahead for his second Cabinet looks to be lined with a number of obstacles.
Abe has remained popular, mainly thanks to early progress with “Abenomics,” his three-part economic plan based on radical monetary easing, more public works spending and vows of structural reforms aimed at ending deflation and raising Japan’s long-term growth potential.
Abenomics boosted stock prices and depressed the yen’s value, allowing the wealthy to benefit and giving a lift to export-driven industries.
But wages in real terms have continued to fall for 13 months, effectively lowering the standard of living for everyday voters. This prompted an increasing number of people and economists to question the validity and sustainability of Abenomics.
Abe will also face a tough decision in December on whether to hike the consumption tax to 10 percent next fall as planned.
Skipping it could arouse mistrust among international investors about Japan’s fiscal sustainability, while going ahead could fuel public frustration with the economy.
The government is also inching toward reactivating some of the country’s nuclear power plants, which have been suspended in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Restarting them, which a large portion of the population is against, could dampen Abe’s popularity further.
With such hurdles looming, Abe may have opted to remove at least one obstacle in advance: his main political rival.
On Wednesday, he sacked Shigeru Ishiba as LDP secretary-general, a move seen as a bid to reduce Ishiba’s clout in the run-up to the next LDP presidential race next fall.
His dismissal has apparently underlined Abe’s ambition to remain LDP chief and prime minister beyond the LDP’s next election in fall 2015.