Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who chose not to step down after his Liberal Democratic Party’s devastating defeat in last month’s Upper House election, reshuffled the LDP leadership and his Cabinet on Monday. Mr. Abe has at least two messages for the people: that his new Cabinet is reliable and stable, and that it is serious about solving social welfare-related problems, including the pension fiasco, and the gaps between prospering urban areas and economically weak rural areas. These problems were the cause of the ruling coalition’s defeat in the July 29 election.
Mr. Abe hopes the new Cabinet lineup will buoy his popularity. But the inclusion of many faction leaders and deputy leaders, as well as the retention of five members of the old Cabinet, may fail to present a fresh image. In the first place, it will be difficult for Mr. Abe, who refused to take the Upper House election result as an indicator of no confidence in him, to regain people’s trust.
The people lost trust in Mr. Abe’s leadership as members of his first Cabinet became embroiled in scandal. Political funds scandals cost Mr. Abe three Cabinet ministers, one of whom committed suicide, and a gaffe remark that the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “could not be helped” led to the resignation of a defense minister. A health minister caused an uproar when he referred to women as baby-bearing machines. His previous Cabinet was also criticized as a Cabinet made up of cronies.
In the reshuffle, Mr. Abe has tried to create a “whole party” and reliable setup. He appointed leaders of five of the LDP’s nine factions to party executive and Cabinet posts. These faction leaders include Mr. Nobutaka Machimura, appointed foreign minister (for a second time); Mr. Bunmei Ibuki, retained as education minister; and Mr. Masahiko Komura, a former foreign minister, appointed defense minister. In addition, Mr. Taro Aso, a former foreign minister, was appointed LDP secretary general, and Mr. Toshihiro Nikai, was appointed chairman of the LDP’s general council.
Mr. Abe apparently wants Mr. Machimura and Mr. Komura, both with experience and expertise in foreign affairs, to contribute to strengthening Japan’s relations with the United States, especially in the realignment of U.S forces in Japan. Another important task for them will be to weaken the Democratic Party of Japan’s opposition to extending the antiterrorism special law, under which a Maritime Self-Defense Force tanker is stationed in the Indian Ocean to supply fuel to navy ships of other countries as part of the global efforts to contain terrorism.
Mr. Abe picked Mr. Aso for the No. 2 position in the LDP since Mr. Aso played an important role in his previous Cabinet as foreign minister and supported his decision to stay in power after the Upper House election. Mr. Aso will have to find a way to cope with the difficult situation in the Upper House, where the opposition camp enjoys a majority. Mr. Nikai was picked because of his strong channels of communication with DPJ members and familiarity with the behavior of DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa. Mr. Nikai, once a close ally of Mr. Ozawa, left the LDP 1993 but later returned to the party. Mr. Nobuteru Ishihara, with no party affiliation, was appointed the LDP policy chief. Because the new party executives are not from big factions, they may have difficulty in uniting the party.
Mr. Abe did not retain Mr. Yasuhisa Shiozaki, his close ally, as Chief Cabinet Secretary. Instead, he picked Mr. Kaoru Yosano, with no factional affiliation, for the post because he has good coordination skills and knowledge of policy matters. Still, Mr. Yosano, as a spokesman for the Cabinet has problems: One is his age — 69; another is his health. He became seriously ill last fall and only returned to work this spring.
Perhaps the new Cabinet’s biggest attention-getter is Mr. Yoichi Masuzoe, an Upper House member who was appointed health and welfare minister. His face is well-known from television, as the scholar-turned politician has also served as a commentator. Having experienced the burden of taking care of his senile mother until her death, he is eager to improve the welfare system. His ability as a Cabinet minister will be tested especially in solving the pension fiasco. Since Mr. Masuzoe often criticized the Abe administration for its behavior, his inclusion in the Cabinet contributes to a stronger image of unity in the new setup.
Mr. Hiroya Masuda, a former reformist governor of Iwate Prefecture, was picked as internal affairs minister. His tasks will include working out measures to close the economic gap between urban and rural areas. His weak point is that he has no experience in national politics.
With the Upper House controlled by the opposition camp, it becomes all the more important for both the ruling and opposition camps to present effective and workable policy proposals to improve the people’s welfare.
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