Having been forced to deal with a string of disputes ranging from North Korea’s missile tests to territorial disputes and rows over history, Shinzo Abe, newly elected head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is stressing the need for a government that can make decisions quickly and decisively.

Abe, currently serving as chief Cabinet secretary, has already said he wants to shake up the structure of the Cabinet.

“I need to build a system in which the prime minister takes the lead and the Cabinet supports him firmly and strongly,” Abe said in an interview earlier this month. “As politicians, we’ve got to get back the initiative from bureaucrats and move forward with policies that we have promised to the people.”

To start with, Abe plans to increase the number of special advisers to the prime minister from two to five to support his policy decisions.

The two current special advisers to the prime minister are Toru Makino and Yoshiaki Watanabe, both of whom are retired senior ministry officials. Makino is in charge of urban reconstruction and Watanabe handles postal reform.

The prime minister’s chief secretary is usually a longtime personal secretary and handles day-to-day political matters. In addition, the prime minister has four other secretaries appointed by three key ministries — the Foreign Ministry, Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry — and the National Police Agency. They serve mainly as liaisons between the prime minister and their respective ministries.

Abe said he will appoint the five special advisers, who will range from young politicians to bureaucrats and academics, to enhance his grasp of diplomacy, defense, economics and education.

He also said he wants to set up other policymaking bodies, such as a council to promote educational reforms, that are pillars of his election platform.

Abe is also thinking of creating an organ similar to the U.S. National Security Council that would provide analysis and policy proposals on defense and diplomatic issues. While the exact size and structure of the organization are not yet clear, Abe apparently wants to model it after the NSC.

In the U.S. this executive body is made up of defense and security experts. It helps the president draw up policy and coordinate with other government agencies.

“I highly praise the idea (of increasing the number of special advisers). It would back up the power of the prime minister,” said Kenji Eda, a Lower House member who served as chief secretary to Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.

But Eda said the number of staff at the Cabinet who assist the prime minister is too small. The president of the United States alone has 20 to 30 high-level assistants in the White House.

He said the recruiting of staff to serve special advisers is an urgent task, as special advisers currently don’t have any officials working under them.

Abe also plans to recruit bureaucrats for secretarial positions directly, rather than having them sent from the ministries for two- to three-year stints in the Cabinet as usual. The idea is to prevent ministries from acting in their own narrow interests.

But experts question the feasibility of Abe’s plan. To make the change work, bureaucrats hoping to work in the Cabinet will have to quit their ministry jobs. It is unlikely many bureaucrats will be willing to give up their careers for a relatively short-term job.

Norihiko Narita, a professor of political science at Surugadai University, said the change will be possible only if the government sets up a new institution specifically to support the prime minister and hires people with expertise for longer periods of time.

Regardless of how the prime minister rejiggers the Cabinet, personal charisma may count for more in building a strong government. Judging from the performance of outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor of public policy at Hokkaido University, said the ability to simplify the policy agenda and gain public support is critical.

Koizumi was able to win support with simple slogans like “no growth, no reform” to promote structural reforms, and “from government services to private services” to push for a smaller budget deficit.

“The power of the Cabinet increased during Koizumi’s tenure. But it cannot be that powerful without Koizumi’s strong character,” Yamaguchi said.

See related links:

Abe must bring both vision, pragmatism to the job

Abe takes helm of LDP, vows to stick with reforms

LDP election broke with norm

Public gives mixed reactions to Abe’s win

Political career of Shinzo Abe

Mr. Abe’s worrisome plan for Japan

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