PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – On Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reshuffled his Cabinet for the seventh time since 2012. There were 23 senior-billet announcements that day: 19 Cabinet postings and four executive positions within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
There are many different angles from which to examine the outcomes of those selections, ranging from what they may portend for post-Abe political leadership and the number of women appointed to the factional breakdown, potential policy impacts and so on.
As a longtime analyst of Japanese politics, I see the importance of reshuffles as signals of a prime minister’s available political capital and of who is wielding power in the LDP.
In this most recent reshuffle, Abe demonstrated that he is clearly in the driver’s seat, posturing his allies for advancement in the LDP ranks, keeping bandwagoners contained and edging out rivals altogether.
While Abe has not braced for major policy shifts (Japanese prime ministers tend to bring in veteran ministers or functional experts to do that), he is instead seeking to stabilize his power atop the LDP, advance his ongoing initiatives and continue posturing his potential successors.
The greatest signal that Abe will not be pursuing major policy changes until the next reshuffle a year or so from now is the number of new ministers he appointed. He set a personal record of offering positions to 13 first-time Cabinet ministers.
The introduction of so many new faces in the Cabinet suggests that the administration will avoid highly contentious policy issues, since missteps in management of the bureaucracy and in Diet deliberations represent surefire ways to erode political capital and see major initiatives fail. Instead, Abe has the long view in mind, giving space for ministers to carry forward ongoing initiatives while cutting their teeth on Cabinet politics.
At the same time, the reshuffle saw Abe demonstrating strength over the LDP, including his rewarding of allies. Two Cabinet appointments in particular are of note. First is the selection of Toshimitsu Motegi as foreign minister. There are only four people who have earned leadership positions in every one of Abe’s Cabinet reshuffles since 2012: Yoshihide Suga, Taro Aso, Fumio Kishida and Motegi. The reasons why the former three have remained all make sense: Suga has been a rock-solid chief Cabinet secretary for Abe, Aso is an LDP heavyweight and close confidant and Kishida is a faction head with prime ministerial-aspirations who Abe needs to keep in good graces.
Motegi is none of those things, but he is close to Abe — so much so that he wrested votes away from his home faction to support Abe in the latest party leadership election.
Abe has kept Motegi close, and in doing so has groomed him for top-tier LDP leadership. Many will claim that the foreign minister post is a reward for Motegi’s handling of trade negotiations with the United States, but Motegi was Abe’s choice for foreign minister before Taro Kono received the billet thanks to intraparty bargaining in August 2017.
The foreign minister billet is important for prime minister hopefuls, since it allows politicians to build international relationships and earn recognition in the public eye. Both of those things are important sources of power for potential prime ministers, and it is clear why Abe sought to ensure that Motegi gets his time in that posting.
Another Abe ally worth mentioning is Koichi Hagiuda. Hagiuda has long been a player in Abe’s inner circle. While he has spent the better part of the past seven years outside the spotlight, Hagiuda has finally won a place in the Cabinet. With it, the minister of education billet returns to an ideological ally of Abe.
This may alarm some who will see Hagiuda’s appointment as Abe’s push to institute further revisions to textbooks or official government positions on history, but Hagiuda understand the political game better than the average Japanese politician.
He has been under fire before, particularly for his involvement in the Kake Gakuen scandal, and he will want his first ministerial posting to be a successful one. This means that Hagiuda will likely seek modest policy achievements while maintaining stability in the position on behalf of his prime ministerial benefactor.
While rewarding his close allies, Abe kept his bandwagon friends at status quo. The most notable is Kishida, a former frontrunner for post-Abe leadership. This Cabinet reshuffle revealed how far he had fallen in the LDP standings. Kishida retained the LDP’s Policy Research Council chairperson position, which was once a powerful posting but has been rendered a symbolic one under the Abe administration. The number of Kishida’s faction members receiving appointments also decreased, despite Kishida’s bid to increase his support base before this reshuffle.
The aging Toshihiro Nikai has managed to hang onto relevancy by casting himself as Abe’s biggest supporter in the LDP. Besides Abe’s home faction, Nikai has regularly been the first to throw his support behind Abe, and he was even the first to bring up the possibility of Abe being granted a fourth term as LDP leader. The reward for Nikai’s backing amounts to the status quo, where Nikai retains his post as the LDP secretary-general and has two faction members in the Cabinet.
Meanwhile, Abe has completely edged out his rivals. Shigeru Ishiba was his sole opponent in last year’s party leadership race, and neither Ishiba nor a single one of his faction members earned a spot among the top-tier positions in the reshuffle. While Ishiba’s place outside the Cabinet affords him necessary space to criticize the Abe administration, his supporters’ inability to gain Cabinet postings will stunt their long-term political aspirations. Similarly, Nobuteru Ishihara and his small faction were shut out from the Cabinet, pushing them further into obscurity.
With this reshuffle, Abe also took steps to cut a rising star down to size. While media darling Shinjiro Koizumi finally makes his first appearance at the Cabinet level, this was a power play by Abe. Abe gets the public opinion boost by having the ever-popular Koizumi in his Cabinet while placing himself in a position of dominance over the young upstart. Koizumi has earned recognition by being outspoken, but as a member of the Cabinet he won’t be able to criticize the administration without retribution.
Further, while the minister of the environment is typically a low-impact billet with little policy influence within the Abe administration, there is one subject of importance here: nuclear energy. From the start, Koizumi will have to deal with the complex problem of what to do with the wastewater building up at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. More broadly, Koizumi has not issued his formal stance on nuclear energy yet and being a member of the Cabinet will place him in direct opposition of his father, the iconic former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has been the poster child for the “Nuclear Zero” movement.
The Abe administration’s pro-nuclear stance could force Shinjiro Koizumi to alienate the portion of his support base that stems from his father’s legacy. To date, the younger Koizumi has tried to employ his popularity to eschew old-guard LDP politics, but Abe has delivered him his first true test.
Abe’s moves also keep another candidate for post-Abe leadership contained: Taro Kono. Kono is well-positioned to make a run for LDP leadership following Abe, but he’s not Abe’s first choice for successor. Hence, in this latest reshuffle, Motegi received the foreign minister billet while Kono had to seek employment elsewhere. Kono would have wanted the chance to move into a position of greater power; however, with Suga, Aso and Nikai staying put, the only viable option for him was to take the defense minister billet.
In terms of domestic political influence, defense minister is among the weaker of Cabinet postings. Functionally, it is a lateral move for Kono: He will still be a core member of the National Security Council; he will still represent Japan’s interests among foreign partners; and he will still be in the public eye. In sum, it is not a step backward from post-Abe leadership, but it is not a step forward either.
There are still more moves to make 51 sub-Cabinet postings, dozens of LDP mid-tier positions and reportedly the national security adviser. Those will be announced in the coming days and will offer some more insight to what we saw Wednesday. More likely than not though, those moves will only reinforce what the top-level reshuffling revealed: an Abe administration firmly in control of the LDP, seeking to advance ongoing initiatives and posturing to ensure that the prime minister’s closest allies enjoy progression to the higher echelons of long-term political leadership.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.