In a bid to put the brakes on his tumbling popularity, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe engineered a make-or-break reshuffle of his scandal-tainted Cabinet on Thursday, gravitating toward veterans to avoid further trouble.
The lineup suggests Abe trod very carefully, but the reshuffle is nonetheless a gamble that could doom him should it fail to contain the current wave of gaffes and scandals.
The new Cabinet counts among its 19 members 13 lawmakers who have previously held ministerial portfolios.
Among them are Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, Foreign Minister Taro Kono, internal affairs minister Seiko Noda — who doubles as minister in charge of promoting female empowerment — and Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa. Noda and Kamikawa are the only two women in the new Cabinet.
“I have gathered a wide range of personnel to ensure the new Cabinet can focus on getting our job done. In a nutshell, this is a result-oriented Cabinet,” Abe told a news conference Thursday evening.
“By producing results in our policy challenges, we would like to take steps — one by one — toward reviving the public trust,” he said.
The choice of Noda, who has distanced herself from Abe, may have been an attempt by the beleaguered leader to dispel the growing criticism that he only favors those considered close to him, represented by recent cronyism allegations involving Abe’s close friend Kotaro Kake.
“Ms. Noda and I became lawmakers around the same time. She speaks very frankly to me about things that can be painful to listen to,” Abe said.
That Abe gravitated toward veterans appeared to underscore his desire to stop the bleeding from a litany of ministerial gaffes and scandals — including an alleged cover-up at the Defense Ministry — that have sent his administration’s popularity declining to around 30 percent in recent polls.
In another testament to Abe’s emphasis on experience, he kept the linchpins of his Cabinet intact, retaining Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Finance Minister Taro Aso, both of whom have faithfully supported the prime minister since his return to power in 2012.
Suga and Aso are among the six Cabinet members who survived the reshuffle, including land minister Keiichi Ishii and health minister Katsunobu Kato, who previously served as minister in charge of promoting dynamic engagement of all citizens. Hiroshige Seko stays on as economy, trade and industry minister.
While keeping Suga and Aso at his side, Abe let go of former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who has widely been viewed as eager to succeed him as prime minister.
Abe’s decision to move Kishida out of the Cabinet after nearly five years could lead to a shift in the ruling party’s power balance, making it easier for the ex-minister to keep a greater distance from the administration and declare his candidacy in next year’s Liberal Democratic Party leadership election. On Thursday, Kishida was tapped as policy chief for the LDP.
Kishida’s rising clout was also evident in the generous way Abe gave portfolios in the shake-up to members of his intraparty faction, Kochikai. Four new ministers, including Onodera, Kamikawa, education minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Masaji Matsuyama, state minister in charge of dynamic engagement of all citizens, belong to the faction. In the previous Cabinet, only two — regional revitalization minister Kozo Yamamoto and Kishida himself — hailed from Kochikai.
Onodera and Hayashi are now saddled with the particularly heavy-lifting job of redeeming public trust in their scandal-tainted posts.
Onodera, a security expert who served as defense minister from 2012 to 2014, has been reinstated to put an end to the turmoil caused by his predecessor Tomomi Inada’s repeated blunders and the ministry’s alleged concealment of the Self Defense Forces activity logs from conflict-riven South Sudan.
Hayashi, meanwhile, takes over the position rocked by the Kake Gakuen scandal, which centers on allegations that Abe used his influence to aid in the opening of a new veterinary department at a university run by his confidant.
Former LDP policy chief Toshimitsu Motegi has been appointed to a new post as minister in charge of human resources development.
Although Abe has largely trodden carefully, his foreign minister pick Kono — who is often seen as an iconoclast in the LDP — was among the few surprises. Unlike many fellow LDP lawmakers, Kono supports a more open immigration policy and in the past has advocated for the legalization of dual nationality.
Speaking about the nation’s growing demographic crisis, Kono told a symposium in Tokyo in February: “It’s obvious to everybody’s eyes that the only option we have is to accept workers from overseas.”
Kono, as newly appointed foreign minister, reaffirmed his commitment Thursday to strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance, positioning Japan as a champion of free trade and combating climate change.
Kono is the son of Yohei Kono, a name synonymous with the landmark 1993 apology issued over the plight of Asian women forced to provide sex for Japanese troops before and during World War II.
On relations with South Korea, Kono said the same day it is “desirable” that Tokyo’s 2015 historic deal with Seoul to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the long-standing row over the issue should be carried out sincerely.