PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – With Yoshihide Suga formally appointed as prime minister on Wednesday, all eyes will be watching to see how the newly minted leader will steer Japan.
Many will be wondering what is on the horizon for the Japanese political landscape, and if one truly wants a window into how we got here and where we are going in Japanese politics, it is necessary to look at the Cabinet appointments.
Cabinet appointments in Liberal Democratic Party-led administrations are never unilateral decisions; rather, they are the product of intra-party bargaining. As such, by looking at who ended up in what positions, we can learn much more than any speech or policy pronouncement — one simply needs to know how.
The easiest takeaway is to see who stands to gain from the positions they received. If a person landed the post of LDP secretary-general or chief Cabinet secretary, that would indicate a position of power within the administration. If they received a billet that has no ministry under it — e.g. the “minister for promoting dynamic engagement of all citizens” — then it is more of a ceremonial position that comes with a title and not much else.
There is also a pecking order in terms of power and prestige within the Cabinet. Minister of finance and minister of the economy are both important positions typically reserved for allies of the prime minister. Minister for foreign affairs is good for making a name for oneself, but does not wield a significant amount of intra-governmental power.
The list goes on, but these appointments also serve as indicators of which policy issues the prime minister considers most important versus least; after all, if the prime minister appoints a rival to a ministry where they are bound to butt heads frequently, it would be self-defeating.
Looking more closely, we can discern which LDP executives wielded the most influence with Suga. One can determine this through the proportion of appointments relative to the size of their individual factions. Based on whether a faction receives a higher or lower share of Cabinet positions than its number of sitting Diet members, it is fairly easy to discern who are the allies and rivals within the party.
LDP-style ‘unity Cabinet’
Following the LDP presidential election, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai called for reconciliation within the party, and Suga’s Cabinet appointments reflect this in all the glory of the party’s old guard.
Per the norm, Suga’s “unity Cabinet” allots at least one Cabinet post to every faction and in general gives each faction close to the amount of billets proportional to the faction’s size. Also reflecting precedent was that Suga’s factional backers benefited in splitting the difference in terms of proportionality.
This is nothing new for the LDP. These practices have been in place for decades, but it is important to recognize now because for all of Suga and Nikai’s assertions to the contrary, factional politics is indeed underpinning the Suga administration.
This will be troubling for Suga in the long run because he will be beholden to his factional backers, especially with another LDP presidential election already on the horizon next September.
Suga did manage to help himself out with the “unity Cabinet.” Wherever possible, he stacked the Cabinet with people he knows well, even if they come from different factions.
For example, Yoko Kamikawa served alongside Suga for several years in the Cabinet as the justice minister. Katsunobu Kato, who is now Suga’s chief Cabinet secretary, served as a deputy chief Cabinet secretary under Suga for two years and as a member of the Abe Cabinet for several years after that.
Beyond these observations, there are key players that are worth watching as Suga’s new administration begins.
The first faction leader to announce his support for Suga was Nikai.
Many will refer to Nikai as the “kingmaker” or “shadow shogun,” but he has only managed to stay relevant for the past eight years by being the most opportunistic cheerleader for Shinzo Abe and now, Suga.
Nikai’s “loyalty” is only as good as the rewards he receives for himself and his faction — which is frankly filled with duds. Many will recall the minister of cybersecurity who did not know how to use a computer: Yoshitaka Sakurada was gifted the appointment because he is a member of Nikai’s faction. Sakurada was not the only one either, as the majority of Nikai faction members that received Cabinet-level appointments from Abe either resigned or were under scrutiny for gaffes and scandals. We should expect Nikai’s loyalties to shift with the wind — just as they have in the past.
Fumio Kishida took a gamble by running in the race, and he now finds himself without a Cabinet or leadership posting within Suga’s administration. Although Suga gifted Kishida’s faction two Cabinet billets, one was a repeat appointment of Kamikawa as justice minister, and the other the post of minister of state for digital technology, which may or may not gain traction in the government.
From here, Kishida will need to go all-in as a challenger. It is too late for him to try to limp back into Suga’s good graces, since too many other faction leaders have cozied up to Suga. If Kishida has any hopes of becoming prime minister, he will have to go the way of Ishiba and build his own political identity separate from that of the administration.
Many will argue that Ishiba had a poor showing in the LDP race, but those assertions ignore the fact that the election was engineered to see him fail. Even still, Ishiba garnered 20 percent of non-factional votes, so he is not out of the game yet. In fact, Ishiba finds himself in a workable position, since he gets to play the role of challenger despite his relatively small faction still receiving a Cabinet appointment with a full ministry under it (the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare). From here, Suga will have to try to stay ahead of Ishiba’s own policy promises, especially in realms that are important to local LDP politicians.
In Suga’s administration, Taro Kono finds himself downgraded. He has been relegated to a posting that he has already held before (the minister of state for administrative reform), and while he is still in the Cabinet, it is tantamount to a demotion. Suga understands that he must manage Kono’s ambitions to become prime minister, but another factor at play here is that Kono has made some rash decisions as a Cabinet minister that were not properly coordinated within the party; e.g. Aegis Ashore cancellation. Kono’s new post reflects these things, and Kono will have to rebuild faith from both Suga and the party to regain his standing.
The preservation of Motegi as foreign minister is mutually beneficial. Suga gets to retain a steady hand for foreign policy, which is a known blind spot for the new prime minister. Meanwhile, Motegi gets to build his international reputation and stay in the public eye to foster his own personal brand. This arrangement will help ensure continuity in Japan’s foreign policy, and Suga will likely rely heavily on Motegi to carry the water in international engagements.
Kishi is a strange pick that signals factional influence and possibly a personal favor.
Kishi happens to be Shinzo Abe’s brother, the name difference owing to Kishi’s adoption into extended family to preserve former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi’s family name. Kishi has only served as a vice minister for foreign affairs before, though the length of his Diet tenure makes him eligible under the LDP’s unwritten rules for Cabinet appointments. It is clear that the Hosoda faction now wants to build Kishi’s credentials.
Even so, the Defense Ministry is an odd choice at a time when the party will need a mouthpiece for a new National Security Strategy, policies related to strike capabilities and agreements that would formalize security partnerships with countries like Australia.
Kishi’s lack of experience in parliamentary debates may get the newly minted Suga administration in trouble on potentially contentious issues.
Finally, Suga’s pick to take over his old billet is an interesting one. Suga certainly knows Kato. Kato was a deputy chief Cabinet secretary under Suga for two years, and he has been a constant presence in the Abe Cabinet through many reshuffles.
The appointment of Kato to be the government’s top spokesperson signals trust, but Suga will still have the challenge of letting him bring his own style and personality to the position. For Kato, the posting is a major boost for his future prospects, grooming him to move up in his pursuit of LDP leadership one day.
Dr. 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.