Japan's Cabinet gets makeover as support for Abe dips

TOKYO: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reshuffled his Cabinet on Thursday, seeking to repair his tattered approval ratings by installing well-known moderates in key roles.

Analysts say Abe appears to be putting a priority on economic reforms while toning down talk of amending the constitution and other controversial issues.

"We will put the economy first," said former Foreign and Defense Minister Fumio Kishida, who left the Cabinet to become head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's Policy Research Council, which plays an influential role in drafting legislation.

"I will take my job very seriously in order to tackle the challenges mounting in and outside of Japan," he said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a key power broker who retained his post, announced the new lineup. It's Abe's fourth since he took office in late 2012. The last Cabinet was appointed about a year ago.

Public approval ratings for Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party have suffered after a spate of scandals over alleged cronyism and other abuses.

While the party enjoys wide support and is seen as the only realistic option given the lack of a united, popular opposition, many Japanese object to the Liberal Democrats' tendency to force unpopular legislation through parliament.

Koichi Nakano, an international politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo who is often critical of the ruling party, said the lineup was "dull" and defensive in nature.

"Abe's cornered and one of the main goals of the reshuffle was to remove problematic ministers, although Mr. Abe himself is the root of many problems," Nakano said.

Experts said they expect work on Abe's pet conservative causes, such as strengthening the role of the military, would continue behind the scenes.

The shake-up reflects Abe's recognition that despite the Liberal Democrats' overwhelming majority in parliament, his own once seemingly invincible position after more than four years in office may be imperiled.

Sweeping reforms meant to rejuvenate the sluggish economy and cope with Japan's slow birthrate and aging, shrinking population have made little headway as Abe instead focused on other issues such as revising the pacifist constitution.

In Japan, choice Cabinet positions tend to be distributed between factions that operate almost like political fiefdoms within the ruling party, and this time is no different.

Of 19 Cabinet members, 14 were newly named. But many are party or Cabinet veterans, including Itsunori Onodera, a former defense minister who again was named to that post.

Last week, Abe's protege Tomomi Inada stepped down as defense minister after the ministry was found to have covered up information about risks faced by Japanese peacekeeping troops in South Sudan.

Onodera's expertise is viewed as an asset at a time of growing tensions over North Korea and its launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Abe also chose several popular lawmakers known to differ from him on key issues such as nuclear power.

The new foreign minister, Taro Kono, 54, is known to be mildly liberal-leaning and has opposed nuclear energy, though he toned down his stance while serving as reform minister in an earlier Abe Cabinet.

A politics graduate of Georgetown University, Kono is fluent in English. He is probably best known for being the son of Yohei Kono, a former speaker of the lower house who also served as foreign minister.

Kono's predecessor Kishida opted out of this Cabinet and is widely thought to be aiming for a shot at becoming prime minister.

So is Seiko Noda, who was named minister for internal affairs and communications and has served in several past Cabinets.

Noda challenged Abe for leadership of the ruling party in 2015. Although a conservative, she's a strong advocate of economic and other reforms to counter Japan's falling birthrate and promote gender equality.

Yoshimasa Hayashi, another fluent English speaker and former agriculture minister, was appointed to head the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. He has headed several government agencies, including defense, farm and economic and fiscal policy.

Former Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa was re-appointed.

Both Hayashi and Kamikawa hold master's degrees in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.