National / Politics

Cabinet reshuffles provide a window into Japan's policy priorities

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is planning to reshuffle his Cabinet on Wednesday. When this action, combined with the reshuffle of Liberal Democratic Party executives, takes place, there is always huge media coverage on who will be appointed to what post and what it means for the administration.

For political insiders, it’s a big deal. But for those outside the political world of Nagatacho, it’s sometimes hard to understand how it all works and what the implications are. Here are questions and answers on the Cabinet reshuffle:

What is the purpose of a Cabinet reshuffle and why is it important for the prime minister?

It helps retain or increase his political power base and appoint fresh faces that may increase his public support rate. A reshuffle can also be used to reward allies and punish opponents within the party after national elections and the party presidential race. For instance, the prime minister may hand Cabinet posts to lawmakers who helped him become party president and thus prime minister.

A Cabinet lineup will show what policies the prime minister wants to prioritize and which members the prime minister considers key to securing the administration’s political base. As for Wednesday’s reshuffle of the Cabinet and LDP lineup, it is likely to underline Abe’s determination to push his goal of revising the Constitution.

What are the criteria for becoming a Cabinet minister?

Cabinet posts often go to Lower House lawmakers who have been elected more than five times and Upper House lawmakers elected more than three times.

However, this is by tradition, not law. The prime minister can choose a first-term Diet member or even someone outside the world of politics well-versed in the policies of the ministry in question.

Which key politicians might be tapped in this reshuffle?

There has been much speculation that Shinjiro Koizumi, the son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and who enjoys great media popularity, will be in the lineup. NHK reported Tuesday the younger Koizumi, who has been touted by pundits as a possible future prime minister, would be offered a post despite having told the media that he is considering taking paternity leave after his wife, TV celebrity Christel Takigawa, gives birth in January.

Former economic revitalization minister Akira Amari, a prominent LDP member who is close to Abe, has also been mentioned in media reports of late as a possible candidate for a senior party post. Amari, who was forced to resign from his post in 2016 amid allegations of bribery, was reported by Kyodo News on Sunday to be a favorite pick for a senior LDP leadership post.

Other media reports have Foreign Minister Taro Kono being appointed defense minister and Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s lead negotiator in bilateral trade talks with the United States, becoming foreign minister.

Is some level of expertise in a given area, such as health, finance, social welfare, defense or diplomacy, a prerequisite for being appointed to a particular post?

No. While the LDP has different committees and study groups dedicated to all manner of subjects, and while individual members may have a personal interest or professional background in certain areas, it is not a prerequisite to have a great deal of expertise in a ministerial area of responsibility.

This can lead to embarrassing situations at times. Last November, Yoshitaka Sakurada, who was then the minister for cybersecurity, admitted he did not use computers and told a Diet committee he was not that familiar with cybersecurity issues.

Sakurada, who also served as minister for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, was forced to resign his Cabinet post earlier this year after making comments deemed offensive to survivors of the March 11, 2011, Tohoku quake and tsunami.

At the same time, with LDP policy committees corresponding to actual ministries, a lawmaker who has headed a specific committee can be a strong candidate for the corresponding ministerial post.

How many Cabinet ministers are there?

Including the prime minister, there are 20. Some have multiple portfolios, sometimes up to eight. For example, Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi has been minister in charge of an inclusive society while holding seven other ministerial portfolios. They include state minister of administrative reform, state minister for civil service reform, state minister of territorial issues, and state minister for Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs.

Are Cabinet reshuffles ever truly notable?

The one in October 2005 was, when then-Prime Minister Koizumi reshuffled his Cabinet for a third and final time. It followed a snap Lower House election that he called to drum up voter support for his goal of privatizing the postal system, which faced intense Diet opposition.

Following the election, which brought supporters of Koizumi into the Diet, the prime minister, with the political wind at his back, reshuffled his Cabinet at the end of that October. With the support of the ruling LDP-led coalition, which Koizumi headed, a bill to privatize the postal services cleared the Diet.

That Cabinet reshuffle was also the last one before Abe succeeded Koizumi in his first stint as prime minister in 2006, only staying in office one year before returning again in 2012.

When Abe reshuffles his Cabinet on Wednesday, he will do so as the second-longest serving prime minister in history, and the longest-serving since the end of World War II in 1945.