Staff writer

Though Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi had expressed his intention to select a “fresh” Cabinet with the right people in the right places, the lineup drew a mixture of disappointment and cautious optimism.

The disappointment stemmed from the fact that Obuchi did not succeed in significantly reducing the factional influences in the Liberal Democratic Party while forming the Cabinet.

In an effort to improve the image of the Cabinet, new LDP executives decided that Obuchi be given discretion in naming four of the 20 ministerial posts: Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, Economic Planning Agency chief Taichi Sakaiya, Education Minister Akito Arima and Posts and Telecommunications Minister Seiko Noda.

However, as has been customary in the LDP, the remaining 16 posts were distributed to factions largely according to size and seniority. “The formation of the new Cabinet is no different from those in the past, in which ministerial posts were decided in a power balance among LDP factions,” said Muneyuki Shindo, a professor at Rikkyo University.

Fukashi Horie, a professor emeritus at Keio University, agreed. “One of the LDP’s traditional practices is still alive, under which lawmakers who have served in the Diet more than five terms are ‘qualified’ to receive ministerial posts,” he said.

The largest faction, led by Obuchi, received five posts. A faction led by Miyazawa was handed four portfolios, excluding Miyazawa’s. Two other factions — one led by former Finance Minister Hiroshi Mitsuzuka and the other by the late Vice Prime Minister Michio Watanabe — received three each. The smallest faction, led by Toshio Komoto, former head of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, got one post.

Of the 16 positions, the promotion of State Foreign Secretary Masahiko Komura to foreign minister reflected Obuchi’s determination to continue on the foreign-policy path created by Obuchi and former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, Horie said. Sakaiya, a prominent author and an economic critic, was selected as head of the EPA. It remains to be seen whether or how much of a role he can plan in helping Japan overcome its economic woes.

There are positive elements to be seen in the lineup, some experts noted. It is believed that Sakaiya, Arima, 67, a well-known scientist and former University of Tokyo president, and Noda, 37, a Lower House member, were appointed to give the public an impression of “freshness,” Horie said. “But I doubt that the three appointments will successfully achieve what was intended,” Horie said, implying that the impact will be only cosmetic.

Noda, the only female minister, is a junior politician who has been elected twice to the Lower House. Critics say it is clear she was appointed only because she is a woman. “The appointment of Noda is intended to counter criticism at home and abroad that the nation’s political world is dominated by men,” said Hidekazu Kawai, a professor at Gakushuin University. Among the 368 LDP Diet members, there are only 14 women.

Political experts agreed that the core of the new Cabinet is Miyazawa and Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka. Recognizing the urgent need to address the nation’s financial crisis and revamp its moribund economy, Obuchi showed every courtesy to win Miyazawa’s services as finance minister.

Shindo pointed out that Miyazawa’s appointment makes it unclear who the Cabinet’s leader is. “It is virtually the Cabinet of Miyazawa under Obuchi’s name,” Shindo said. Takeshi Sasaki, a professor at the University of Tokyo, said Obuchi, Nonaka and new LDP executives including Secretary General Yoshiro Mori should immediately determine the administration’s decision-making lines and process.

Under the Hashimoto administration, the LDP took the initiative in deciding policy-related matters while the Cabinet waited for developments. But Sasaki pointed out that Obuchi’s administration will not have the luxury of time. “What is indispensable for the new administration is to decide policy measures quickly and to carry them out in a swift manner to tackle the deepening recession and the financial crisis,” Sasaki said.

Shindo said Nonaka is expected to woo Komei, an opposition party, to cooperate with the LDP, which is seen as another cause for hope. “Among all major LDP lawmakers, he has the closest ties with Komei, which is backed by the nation’s largest lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai,” the professor said.

Kawai predicted Obuchi’s government will be short-lived — probably less than a year. “Its major task is to carry out effective economic and financial measures with the help of Miyazawa. Ironically, the mission of the administration will be completed when the necessary measures are implemented,” Kawai said, adding that a general election is likely within a year.

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