Japan will likely get a new foreign minister and defence minister in a Cabinet reshuffle today as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tries to resuscitate his political fortunes amid falling approval ratings.
Public broadcaster NHK yesterday said the defence portfolio will likely be taken up again by Mr Itsunori Onodera, 57, who was defence chief from December 2012 to September 2014.
He is known to be aligned with Mr Abe's hawkish views and also a member of the right-wing lobby group Nippon Kaigi.
His appointment might give wind to Japan's quest to acquire offensive weapons, including cruise missiles, in the name of defence, as Mr Onodera chairs a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) policy research group looking at how Japan should arm itself against the threat of North Korea. The rogue state last month test-fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles, which fell into waters in Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone.
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Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, 60, who has stood in as defence minister for the past week, will likely step down as foreign affairs chief and be appointed as head of the ruling LDP's policy research council at his own request.
Mr Abe was said to be keen on retaining Mr Kishida as Japan's top envoy, but was persuaded to appoint him in one of the top LDP executive posts when they met on Tuesday, Kyodo news agency said. The duo are from different party factions, and Mr Kishida has professed his prime ministerial ambitions.
SUITABLE PICK FOR THE TIME
Mr Onodera is a good choice because he brings a lot of experience at a time when the situation is getting more dicey on the Korean peninsula.
SECURITY EXPERT TOSH MINOHARA of Kobe University, about Mr Itsunori Onodera (above). Public broadcaster NHK yesterday said the defence portfolio would likely go to the man who was defence chief from December 2012 to September 2014.
NHK reported last night the foreign ministerial pick is Mr Taro Kono, 54, who is seen to hold liberal beliefs in the conservative LDP.
Mr Abe might also appoint Ms Seiko Noda, 56, an experienced lawmaker who had clashed with him before, to the Cabinet.
The names revealed thus far suggest Mr Abe prefers the safety of veterans to potentially gaffe-prone new faces as he tries to steady the ship, observers said.
They also said Mr Abe has an eye on quelling the public perception that he is biased towards those aligned to his values, given the two successive favouritism scandals.
Meanwhile, Mr Abe plans to retain his key deputies - Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, 68, and Finance Minister Taro Aso, 76.
The changes to the Cabinet - put in place only one year ago today - come as approval ratings for the Cabinet, not just Mr Abe, dropped below 30 per cent in several media polls, on the back of two cronyism scandals and a series of missteps.
While LDP rules were amended earlier this year to give Mr Abe a shot at a third term as party chief - and consequently prime minister until 2021 - his plunging ratings have given rivals like Mr Kishida and Ms Noda a fillip as the party votes for its new president in September next year.
The reshuffle also comes after a former Abe protege, Ms Tomomi Inada, became the fourth minister in the current Cabinet to quit when she stepped down as defence chief last Friday over the cover-up of daily activity logs of Japanese troops in South Sudan.
The logs contained information about the situation in the African country last July when violence erupted, leading to the deaths of at least 300 soldiers.
This would have been sensitive in pacifist Japan, whose troops can be deployed abroad only if a ceasefire is in place.
As such, one of Mr Onodera's first duties will be to steer his ministry and the military Self-Defence Force through the scandal's fallout.
Kobe University security expert Tosh Minohara said: "Mr Onodera is a good choice because he brings a lot of experience at a time when the situation is getting more dicey on the Korean peninsula."
Senior research fellow Bonji Ohara of think-tank Sasakawa Peace Foundation, who was a former military officer, told The Straits Times: "Mr Onodera will certainly be expected to continue the administration's existing policy." He added: "There will be no change in the direction of government policy vis-a-vis either North Korea or the East and South China Sea."