New Abe Cabinet to refocus on economy

New govt portfolio to spur greater workforce participation; only 3 female ministers named

TOKYO • A former wrestler and a television anchorwoman joined Japan's Cabinet yesterday as part of a reshuffle that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes will refocus the national political agenda on the economy.

The Premier has switched his focus back to the country's flagging economy, after expending political capital pushing unpopular security legislation that could see Japanese troops fighting abroad for the first time in 70 years.

With this in mind, Mr Abe promoted Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, 59, to a newly created portfolio charged with encouraging greater workforce participation.

Mr Kato, a former finance ministry bureaucrat and a father of four daughters, is also tasked with tackling the declining birth rate and female empowerment - a key element of the so-called "Abenomics" reforms unleashed more than two years ago.

In the coming decades, Japan faces the threat of severe labour shortages and booming welfare costs in a country with a rapidly ageing population and one of the world's lowest birth rates.

The Japanese leader retained about half of the current 19 Cabinet members, including those heading the key finance, foreign affairs and economics ministries.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced the new line-up after Mr Abe collected letters of resignation from ministers at a noon meeting.

Mr Abe has repeatedly said women are a key part of his flagship bid to kick-start the world's number three economy, and he has pushed for them to fill more senior roles in politics and business.

Yet the Premier named only three female lawmakers as ministers, down from five appointed in the shake-up in September last year, two of whom are new.

Ms Tamayo Marukawa, a 44-year-old former television anchorwoman, was appointed Environment Minister, while 50-year-old Ms Aiko Shimajiri was given the portfolio in charge of Okinawa and the northern territories.

The reduction in female Cabinet members comes less than two weeks after Mr Abe vowed to push initiatives for women's empowerment at a United Nations meeting in New York.

Mr Hiroshi Hase, a colourful 54-year-old professional wrestler-turned-politician, was given the education portfolio.

His predecessor, Mr Hakubun Shimomura, had offered to resign last month over his involvement in abandoned plans for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics main stadium after the venue's eye-watering US$2 billion (S$2.8 billion) price tag sparked a public backlash. Mr Abe had asked him to stay on until the reshuffle.

Mr Yoshimasa Hayashi, a 54-year-old Upper House lawmaker who in 2012 lost the race

for the Liberal Democratic Party leadership post against Mr Abe, was replaced as Agriculture Minister by Mr Hiroshi Moriyama, after serving less than a year in the post.

Mr Abe has been trying to demonstrate renewed commitment to fixing the stale economy. He recently unveiled three new policy "arrows" that aides say subsume an original trio of hyper-easy monetary policy, public spending and reform.

The new targets are to expand the economy by one-fifth to 600 trillion yen (S$7 trillion), boost the fertility rate and reform the overburdened social welfare system.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2015, with the headline 'New Abe Cabinet to refocus on economy'. Print Edition | Subscribe