Commentary / Japan

Get ready for a Cabinet reshuffle

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

While most observers of Japanese politics are justifiably fixated on the Upper House election on July 21, there is another important political event that will follow shortly thereafter: a Cabinet reshuffle. The lack of attention is in part due to the fact that administrations are notoriously guarded about when they will reshuffle Cabinet ministers, meaning the rumor mill does not typically start generating news stories until a week or so out. Still, given the timing of the Upper House election and the past behavior of the Abe administration, the Cabinet is due for a shake-up.

While the reshuffle is unlikely to see any high profile changes in the current lineup, the ensuing Cabinet and sub-Cabinet appointments will signal how much political capital Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has going into the extraordinary session of the Diet later this year through to the 2020 Olympics.

For decades, Liberal Democratic Party prime ministers have used Cabinet reshuffles every one to two years as tools for managing factional politics, stabilizing the administration and influencing public approval ratings. The party is comprised of seven formal factions that each jockey for power, and the prime minister can use Cabinet appointments to reward allies or co-opt rivals in currying favor and preventing defections. Also, if done well, reshuffles can offer up to a 10 point boost in public approval rating of the Cabinet, halting a nosedive in the polls or yielding additional political capital for use in pursuing policy agenda items.

In the next reshuffle, there will be a total of 19 top-tier positions up for consideration, as well as 52 sub-Cabinet postings usually decided upon a few days after the announcement of senior billets. As has become customary practice, the prime minister (who doubles as the LDP president) also reshuffles postings within the party, including the LDP’s top four leadership positions.

Some media reports suggest that the reshuffle will take place sometime in September, though it could be as soon as early August or as late as October after the consumption tax hike. Each month between now and October has its pros and cons for Abe, but the important point is that the reshuffle will happen soon after the Upper House election. This is well precedented for Abe, who has consistently reshuffled his Cabinet about once a year — sooner when the reshuffle follows an election.

Abe will soon reassemble his Cabinet based on his available political capital and his desired policy agenda. In that way, the Cabinet reshuffle is revealing of the prime minister’s power and how aggressive his near-term agenda will be.

Two reshuffles ago in August 2017, Abe needed to stabilize his administration owing to scandals and high profile resignations. His solution was to bring in veteran lawmakers and to make concessions to competing factions while avoiding unnecessarily contentious bills in the Diet.

In his last reshuffle in October 2018, he opted for a unity Cabinet with fair concessions to both LDP friends and rivals to spread the burden of a challenging political calendar. He needed party cohesion to ensure political stability through the imperial abdication and ascension, the Group of 20 summit, and the July 21 Upper House election.

Decision-making on the reshuffle will depend on the outcome of this month’s election, but assuming the results yield status quo or better for his party, Abe will look to fill the Cabinet with friends and allies who are best suited to help him achieve his remaining policy goals. If the election result is poor for the LDP (meaning a reduction in seats), Abe is likely once again to opt for a unity Cabinet to keep potential rivals at bay until he is able to achieve his legacy goal of becoming the longest-serving prime minister and shepherding the government through the 2020 Olympics.

Making specific predictions on Cabinet reshuffles is always a gamble, but there are a few safe bets for the next set of moves. Those likely to stay in their current positions include the following: Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Finance Minister (and Deputy Prime Minister) Taro Aso, economic revitalization (and head of trade negotiations) minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Foreign Minister Taro Kono, transport minister Keiichi Ishii, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko and Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya.

As for probable exits, Minister of State for Regional Revitalization Satsuki Katayama is a sure bet to leave the Cabinet based on gaffes and political financing concerns. Others not listed here are all on the chopping block, and their billets will depend on election results and outcomes of inter-factional deals.

On the LDP leadership side of the reshuffle, General Affairs Council Chair Katsunobu Kato and Election Committee Chair Akira Amari — both close Abe allies — will retain senior postings, but may switch LDP portfolios or re-enter the Cabinet as ministers. Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai and Policy Research Council Chair Fumio Kishida’s fates will be influenced by their personal desires. As faction heads, those two will be negotiating for their own postings as well as for those of their faction members. The safe money is on them staying in their current posts, but inter-factional competition may render different results, especially depending on the outcome of the election.

The moves Abe makes in the upcoming reshuffle will offer important signals for Japanese politics. If Abe is forced to make notable concessions to LDP rivals, it will signal caution and less stability atop the government. In this circumstance, Abe will play it safe and focus more on LDP-led policy agendas as he carries his prime ministerial tenure through to record lengths. If Abe fills his Cabinet with personal picks, it will signal confidence at the top, and issues like constitutional amendment may find higher prioritization in the policy agenda.

The Cabinet postings will also showcase who Abe is grooming to succeed him. Some of his proteges like Tomomi Inada have stumbled despite receiving fast-tracked, high profile appointments, so as with previous reshuffles it will be key to watch who Abe privileges in his selections.

As many analysts and observers have already pointed out, the Upper House election is unlikely to produce a significant change in the composition of the Diet, but it will still shape the near-term political landscape significantly. The Cabinet reshuffle will be our first indication of just how that landscape looks.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was the deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.