Noda hoping latest reshuffle bucks trend of dismal failures

Always a gamble, shakeups in last six years have mostly backfired


Staff Writer

Cabinet reshuffles are generally called a gamble prime ministers take to reverse dismal approval ratings, but in recent years most of them have failed miserably.

Since Junichiro Koizumi left office in September 2006, the administrations of the Liberal Democratic Party and the now ruling Democratic Party of Japan have seen six prime ministers. Four of them decided to go for broke when their support ratings started to plunge, in a desperate attempt to cling to power.

Before Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda added new faces Friday, the most recent reshuffle was last January, when Naoto Kan booted his chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshito Sengoku, and transport minister Sumio Mabuchi. Both had been censured in the opposition-controlled Upper House after confidential video footage of collisions between a Chinese trawler and Japan Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands was leaked onto the Internet by a coast guardsman.

Kan’s support rate at the time had sunk below 30 percent, widely considered the minimum level necessary for a prime minister to stay on. The new appointments in Kan’s reshuffle, which made Yukio Edano the youngest chief Cabinet secretary in history, helped push the rate back up to around 35 percent. But the “dead cat bounce” quickly faded, and only a month later Kan’s approval ratings had again slumped below 30 percent.

The circumstances that prompted Noda’s reshuffle are eerily reminiscent to Kan’s: The approval rate for Noda’s administration has been hovering at around 30 percent, the prime minister was forced to replace two Cabinet members who were censured in the Diet, and the opposition camp still calls the shots in the House of Councilors.

Noda must be hoping the similarities end there and he doesn’t find himself back in the quagmire as quickly as Kan was.

One of the more infamous reshuffles in recent years was carried out in August 2008 by then LDP Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda. It backfired disastrously both for him and his LDP-New Komeito administration. Despite changing 13 of his 17 ministers in a Hail Mary overhaul of his Cabinet, his approval ratings remained virtually unchanged at about 30 percent and Fukuda suddenly announced his resignation at a hastily convened news conference the following month.

While his administration had been experiencing legislative gridlock, many pundits were puzzled by the haste with which he bowed out, before he had even tested the waters in the Diet after the reshuffle.

Fukuda’s successor, Taro Aso, was one of the two prime ministers who did not carry out a Cabinet shakeup during their short-lived administrations. Aso was in fact a vocal opponent of minor Cabinet reshuffles, arguing there are no past instances of the ruling camp benefiting from slight tweaks to the ministerial lineup.

At the time of Fukuda’s exit, Yukio Hatoyama, secretary general of the DPJ, then the main opposition force, swiftly criticized his resignation as “an irresponsible act” and assailed Fukuda for shirking the responsibilities that come with being in office.

Less than two years later, however, Hatoyama would find himself in exactly the same position as Fukuda. Hatoyama became prime minister in autumn 2009 after the DPJ swept to power in the general election that year, but his stint at the helm lasted less than nine months and he was gone by the following June.

One rare exception to the reshuffle rule was Koizumi’s successful Cabinet shakeup in September 2003, which sent his support rating soaring from the mid-40 percent range to more than 65 percent.

Although his administration’s approval rate eventually waned, it remained steady at more than 40 percent right up to his exit in 2006.

Opposition fast to criticize


Opposition parties Friday were quick to criticize Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s new Cabinet lineup initiated to replace two ministers who had been targeted by censure motions last year in the Upper House.

Liberal Democratic Party chief Sadakazu Tanigaki repeated the main opposition party’s plan to spurn discussions with Noda’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan over the proposed consumption tax hike, even though the LDP earlier advocated a higher levy.

“We can’t accept being part of a lie and resolving the matter through prearranged (decisions),” Tanigaki told an LDP gathering.