Abe unveils Cabinet heavy on experience

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been in power for 4½ years, apologised yesterday for the string of incidents that have damaged public trust.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been in power for 4½ years, apologised yesterday for the string of incidents that have damaged public trust.

Japanese PM vows more transparency, 'policy first' approach to win back trust after political scandals

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in a bid to regain public trust, has drained the swamp in unveiling a new Cabinet line-up that is heavy on experience and vowing to redirect focus back to policy issues.

Outgoing foreign minister Fumio Kishida, 60, who for the past week also served as defence chief, has meanwhile been assigned a key executive role within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

This will prime him for a bid to become future party president which, if successful, means he will consequently very likely become prime minister if the party is in power.

Japan's new foreign minister is Mr Taro Kono, 54, who is one of the more liberal voices within the conservative ruling party.

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Mr Itsunori Onodera, 57, who was defence minister from 2012 to 2014, returns to the portfolio.

Of the 19 ministerial positions, 13 went to lawmakers with previous Cabinet experience, while the rest are newcomers. The average age of the 19 ministers is 64.8 years.

To ensure stability, Mr Abe, 62, kept key allies such as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, 68; Finance Minister Taro Aso, 76; and Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko, 54.

But he also swopped out all the ministers who had, in one way or another, been implicated in a series of political scandals and gaffes that have slashed approval ratings to under 30 per cent in several polls.

Since the turn of the year, Mr Abe has himself come under fire for two cronyism scandals involving educational institutions, while the Defence Ministry has been grappling with the fallout of a cover-up saga over daily mission logs kept by Japanese troops sent to South Sudan.

Mr Abe, his head bowed, apologised yesterday for the string of incidents that have damaged public trust, and vowed more transparent processes and a "policy first" approach among his "Cabinet of workers" to win back approval.

University of Tokyo political watcher Yu Uchiyama told The Straits Times that he expects the new Cabinet to focus on bread-and- butter issues like economic revitalisation that will affect ordinary Japanese. He added that other controversial issues, such as the amendment of the pacifist Constitution, might take a backseat for the time being.

Mr Abe, who has been in power for 4½ years, had said in May that he hoped the LDP could come up with a draft by the end of the year.

Only a few months ago, he was expected to hold onto power until 2021, with internal LDP rules revised to allow him a shot at a third consecutive term as party chief.

But public approval has taken a battering, with the Abe administration seen as not only arrogant but also evasive in answering up to the scandals that have surfaced.

Several domestic media outlets have pitched the latest Cabinet shake-up as a sink-or-swim attempt to steady a rocky ship.

Dr Sota Kato, executive director of the Tokyo Foundation think- tank, described Mr Abe's picks as "quite cautious".

Dr Uchiyama added that given Mr Abe's objective of stability, "it makes sense that most ministers are well known and experienced".

Neither expert thinks the reshuffle will drastically improve Mr Abe's approval ratings overnight, though it could be enough to stanch the bleeding for now.

Dr Kato said the appointments show Mr Abe's intent to "work methodically to achieve results over the long haul", and that a sudden dissolution of the Diet is unlikely.

Asked yesterday if he will call a snap election, not due until December next year, Mr Abe said it was "still a blank slate".


Who's who in Abe's new Cabinet

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER/ FINANCE MINISTER TARO ASO

Mr Aso, 76, was reappointed for the two portfolios which he has held since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe swept to power in late 2012.

Mr Aso was the 59th prime minister of Japan, serving from September 2008 to September 2009, when the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was voted out of government.

Both Mr Aso and Mr Abe are conservative on foreign policy issues.

Mr Aso graduated from the Faculty of Politics and Economics at Gakushuin University in Japan.


CHIEF CABINET SECRETARY YOSHIHIDE SUGA

Mr Suga, 68, retained his position as the government's top spokesman, which he has held since December 2012.

In his role, he is also responsible for coordinating the policies of the various ministries and agencies.

He is the longest-serving chief Cabinet secretary since World War II.

Mr Suga, a close aide to Mr Abe, graduated from the Faculty of Law at Hosei University in Japan.


FOREIGN MINISTER TARO KONO*

Mr Kono, 54, is known for his close ties with Washington and his reputation as a liberal political maverick who does not shy away from speaking his mind.

Educated at Georgetown University in the United States, Mr Kono also worked as an aide for several US politicians before returning to Japan.

He is the son of former chief Cabinet secretary Yohei Kono, who authored the landmark 1993 "Kono Statement" apology to "comfort women" forced to work in Japanese military wartime brothels.


DEFENCE MINISTER ITSUNORI ONODERA*

Mr Onodera, 57, who was defence minister from 2012 to 2014, is seen as a safe pair of hands to take on the portfolio.

Mr Onodera headed a ruling LDP panel that has urged the government to beef up its missile defence systems against threats such as North Korea.

Mr Onodera studied at the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management in Japan, a training school for would-be politicians.


INTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTER SEIKO NODA*

Ms Noda, 56, is a prominent LDP lawmaker and veteran of several Cabinet and party posts. She is sometimes spoken of as a possible future female prime minister.

In 2015, Ms Noda tried to challenge Mr Abe's re-election as leader of the ruling LDP but failed to get the backing of the 20 lawmakers needed to launch a formal bid. She said then that she would "of course" make another bid in future.

Ms Noda graduated from the Foreign Language Department at Sophia University in Japan.


TRADE MINISTER HIROSHIGE SEKO

Mr Seko, 54, who serves as Economy, Trade and Industry Minister, retained his post in the reshuffle. He also doubles as Minister for Economic Cooperation with Russia.

Mr Seko graduated from the School of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University, and later received a master's degree from the College of Communication at Boston University.

SOURCES: REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, XINHUA, THE JAPAN TIMES


• * Denotes new appointments

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2017, with the headline 'Abe unveils Cabinet heavy on experience'. Print Edition | Subscribe