Japan PM Suga retains key ministers but appoints new defence chief

Mr Nobuo Kishi (above) is former Japan PM Shinzo Abe's blood brother, but was adopted into Mr Abe's maternal family when he was born. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO • Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's first Cabinet shows a strong preference for continuity and stability, with eight ministers kept in their positions from his predecessor Shinzo Abe's team.

But among the most notable changes was the move of Mr Taro Kono, 57, from Defence Minister to Administrative Reform Minister, a position he previously held from 2015 to 2016. Succeeding him as Defence Minister is Mr Abe's brother Nobuo Kishi, 61, who has close ties with Taiwan.

Still, Mr Suga has stuck with stalwarts such as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, 80, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, 64, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama, 64, and Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, 57.

The new Chief Cabinet Secretary is Mr Katsunobu Kato, 64, a close confidante of Mr Abe, who moved from the health, labour and welfare ministerial portfolio to succeed Mr Suga.

Still, Mr Suga has portrayed himself as a reformist, and yesterday stressed his will to undo the "vested interests, bad precedents and siloed systems" that have hindered Japan's progress.

He has also previously said he will make Cabinet appointments on merit, prioritising reform-minded people and subject experts over typical horse-trading that accompanies faction politics.

At 71, Mr Suga is Japan's oldest incoming leader since the late Kiichi Miyazawa, who was 72 when he became prime minister in 1991.

Yet, Mr Suga presides over one of Japan's youngest Cabinets, whose average age of 60.4 years makes it younger than the 61.6 years of the team appointed in Mr Abe's final Cabinet reshuffle last year.

Two new roles were created in the new Cabinet.

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Mr Takuya Hirai, 62, is Digital Minister, a role that replaces what was previously known as IT Policy Minister. He will spearhead efforts to digitalise Japan's bureaucratic processes and promote areas such as telemedicine and e-learning.

Mr Shinji Inoue, 50, is Minister-in-Charge of the 2025 Osaka World Expo.

However, in a setback for gender equality, there are only two women - one fewer than in Mr Abe's outgoing Cabinet. The duo are Ms Seiko Hashimoto, 55, who keeps her post as Olympic Minister, and Ms Yuko Kamikawa, 67, who returns as Justice Minister, after stints in 2014-2015 and in 2017-2018.

The only minister under the age of 50 is Mr Shinjiro Koizumi, 39, who keeps his position as Environment Minister.

It was Mr Kishi's sudden appointment as defence chief that has been described as the most surprising move in what has been seen as an "Abe 3.0 Cabinet" by some analysts.

Mr Kishi is Mr Abe's blood brother, but was adopted into Mr Abe's maternal family when he was born. This is why he shares the family name of former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, who led from 1957 to 1960. Mr Nobusuke Kishi is a founding member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and had made constitutional revision a key party objective.

The new Defence Minister has very close ties with Taiwan. Just last month, he visited Taipei to attend the funeral of former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui. There, he also had an audience with current President Tsai Ing-wen.

Mr Kishi's appointment did not go unnoticed in China, where Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin's congratulations came with a caveat. He said: "We also hope that Japan will abide by the one-China principle and avoid any form of official exchanges with Taiwan."

Critics have questioned if the outspoken Mr Kono was effectively demoted after ruffling feathers within the LDP in June, when he ditched the land-based Aegis Ashore missile system without much consultation, and last week, when he openly speculated that a snap election may be called next month.

But Mr Suga yesterday denied that was so, stressing that Mr Kono is a known reformist who is best placed to push through changes against the odds.

• For the full list of Mr Yoshihide Suga's Cabinet, go to str.sg/japancabinet

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2020, with the headline Japan PM Suga retains key ministers but appoints new defence chief. Subscribe