With only two years left to cement his legacy, and hours after a major Cabinet reshuffle, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reaffirmed Wednesday evening his desire to pursue outstanding issues such as social welfare reform as well as paving the way for constitutional revision.
“Even in my seventh year as prime minister, I have not lost my appetite for challenges and change,” Abe said in a speech at the Prime Minister’s Office.
“As we stand at the start of the new Reiwa Era, we are on the cusp of creating a new Japan … and on the horizon is the challenge of constitutional revision,” he said. “Above all, there needs to be a stable political foundation in place — otherwise endeavors won’t bear fruit.”
In the run-up to the reshuffle, Abe had said that his new team would be about “stability and challenges.”
Given the scale of the issues Abe seeks to tackle, the nation’s second-longest-serving prime minister has sought stability in Taro Aso and Yoshihide Suga — who will stay on as finance minister and chief Cabinet secretary, respectively, for the seventh year running. The pair has been a fixture of the Abe administration, and are stalwart supporters of the prime minister.
Other familiar faces include trusted advisers to Abe, such as Katsunobu Kato, who was re-appointed to the health, labor, and welfare portfolio — a role he held before in a previous Abe Cabinet. Toshimitsu Motegi, who led bilateral trade talks with the U.S. and has been a key figure in the Abe administration, will replace Taro Kono as foreign minister.
Even some first-time ministers are known faces in Abe’s orbit. New economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura has never headed a ministry, but he is close to Abe and has served as vice chief Cabinet secretary since 2017. Dynamic engagement minister Seiichi Eto and Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda are also known to be Abe’s close confidants.
“Compared to Abe’s previous Cabinets, this is the one that will probably showcase Abe’s leadership the most and create an environment where he can really tackle the issues he wants to work on,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, an expert on political psychology at the International University of Health and Welfare. “Many of the new ministers are people who are willing to do Abe’s bidding and see his policies come to fruition.”
A significant number of the new faces come from a “recommendation list” submitted by factions within the Liberal Democratic Party.
An age-old custom, the lists are submitted to the prime minister whenever there is a major Cabinet reshuffle, detailing lawmakers within various factions who have been re-elected more than five times to the Lower House or more than three times to the Upper House — therefore making them “eligible” to become ministers, according to the unofficial criteria.
First-time ministers such as science and technology minister Naokazu Takemoto and agriculture minister Taku Eto are examples of such appointees.
Although 13 of the 19 ministers hold ministerial positions for the first time, the majority of them are either trusted lieutenants of Abe or unsurprising candidates who were on the faction wish list.
The only anomaly is Shinjiro Koizumi, son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has been appointed environment minister. The 38-year-old legislator is neither a devotee to Abe nor an inclusion on a faction recommendation list, having been elected to office four times.
With Aso and Suga serving as the bedrock of the Abe administration, the youthful and reformist Koizumi could be Abe’s pick to invigorate his Cabinet.
Like his father, Koizumi advocates for Japan to wean itself off nuclear power, and he rubbed Abe the wrong way when he voted for Abe’s rival Shigeru Ishiba in last year’s LDP leadership election.
Koizumi has regularly tied with Abe in favorability polls, sometimes even beating him to become the most popular candidate as the next prime minister.
By giving positions to longtime allies while also taking Koizumi under his wing, Abe may be conscious of his remaining tenure as prime minister, and the little time he has to create a legacy. He has so far been unable to gain much traction on issues that are important to him, such as the abductee issue with North Korea, constitutional revision and negotiations with Russia over disputed islands off Hokkaido.
As a result, Abe may be pinning his hopes on going down in history as the first-ever prime minister to amend Japan’s pacifist Constitution.
“Abe’s selection of people does look like he had constitutional revision in mind,” said Yu Uchiyama, a professor of Japanese politics at The University of Tokyo. “Lawmakers such as Hagiuda, for example, are ideologically close to the prime minister too.”
He has also given some of his closest aides and steadfast supporters positions within the party — posts that will become crucial in negotiating with other parties should a vote for constitutional change be tabled.
For example, former Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura has been appointed director-general of the party’s campaign office. Prior to that, he headed an LDP panel on promoting constitutional revision and has been clear about his stance that Japan needs to change its Constitution.
“I’ve been leading the LDP panel for constitutional revision in the past, but now, as director-general of the campaign office … I hope to direct my efforts into promoting the debate on constitutional change among the people of this country,” he said.
Kawakami, the professor at the International University of Health and Welfare, said that while constitutional revision was a top priority for Abe, the prime minister will probably focus more on immediate issues such as the economy and foreign policy given the lack of appetite for such change among the public.
“Abe has a pattern of working on the economy first, and then taking on reforms that he wants to see,” explained Kawakami, who thinks that Abe will probably do the same this time around and focus on first improving the economy in light of the tax hike scheduled for next month.
“If Abe wants to revise the Constitution during his time in office, he may have to give up on revising Article 9,” the revision of which is opposed by many parties, the professor added.
Abe has indicated that he wants to change Japan’s supreme law so it clarifies the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces, while maintaining the clause renouncing war.
“The question then becomes, to what extent is Abe intent on revising Article 9? Would he be happy to go down in history as the first prime minister to bring about constitutional revision in general, rather than the prime minister who revised Article 9?”
With a graying population, Abe is also prioritizing social welfare reform. He appointed Kato — who is well-versed on such issues and is also said to be Abe’s preferred successor — as health and welfare minister.
LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, who will remain in his current role, has highlighted social welfare reform and fiscal restructuring as among LDP priorities.
“We, as a party, must have thorough discussions on the future of our social welfare system, both in terms of how our system works as well as how it will be funded,” Kishida said. “A seamless transition to the new tax system is essential for improving our social welfare system and restoring the fiscal health of this nation, and therefore crucial for the future of Japan.”
By keeping trusted supporters close, bringing rivals under his control and ensuring close aides are in the most critical posts to make changes he wants to see in the last years of his tenure, the country may now witness decisive moves by Abe toward realizing his long-held political ambitions.