TOKYO - Mr Yoshihide Suga, who was inaugurated Japan's Prime Minister on Wednesday (Sept 16), named a continuity Cabinet that keeps in place eight ministers from predecessor Shinzo Abe's team.
Mr Suga, 71, one of Mr Abe's most trusted allies, has vowed to continue many of his predecessor's policies including the signature Abenomics mix of fiscal spending, monetary easing and structural reforms. He has also said he will look into reforming the bureaucracy.
The change in power at the top of Nagatacho, Japan's political epicentre, comes after Mr Abe resigned abruptly last month over a flare-up of a chronic condition.
Mr Abe, the country's longest-serving leader who drew his tenure to a close at 2,822 days, said on Wednesday: "For nearly eight years, I have taken on the challenges of domestic affairs and diplomacy with all my might."
"Unfortunately, there are many remaining issues, but there are many things I have been able to achieve and realise," he said, highlighting trade agreements like the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the reinterpretation of the Constitution to allow "proactive contribution to peace".
He added: "I devoted my body and soul for the economic recovery and diplomacy to protect Japan's national interests every single day, (and) will support the new administration as a member of the Diet."
As Mr Abe's Chief Cabinet Secretary, Mr Suga played a pivotal role as the public face of the government as the top spokesman, shielding Mr Abe when he came under fire for political scandals, while also being heavily involved in the bureaucracy and administration.
He named as his successor Mr Katsunobu Kato, 64, another close ally of Mr Abe's who stepped down as the minister of health, labour and welfare.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wields control of both chambers of the Diet, as Japan's parliamentary body is known, making Mr Suga's appointment all but a certainty after he won in a landslide in party elections on Monday.
In taking presidency of the LDP, Mr Suga sidelined his two contenders - former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, 63, and former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, 63, who both have no part to play whether in the government administration or as top brass in the party.
Mr Suga won 314 votes out of 462 cast by Lower House members and 142 votes out of 240 cast by Upper House lawmakers, to be formally named Prime Minister on Wednesday.
Comparatively, opposition leader Yukio Edano, 56, who heads the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), won 134 votes in the Lower House and 78 in the Upper House.
Mr Suga faces formidable challenges, not least an economy in recession due to the Covid-19 crisis, as well as longer-term perennial issues such as a rapidly ageing population. He also has to cope with geopolitical challenges, including a confrontation between the United States and China as well as frosty ties with South Korea.
While he said in his victory press conference on Monday that he will not select ministers on the basis of factional politics, instead prioritising "reform-minded people and subject experts", his Cabinet line-up comprised many familiar faces.
Among the eight ministers who kept their positions in the 21-member Cabinet were deputy prime minister and finance minister Taro Aso, who turns 80 this Sunday; foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi, 64; and economy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, 57.
The Cabinet team comprises just two women - one fewer than the three in Mr Abe's outgoing Cabinet. They are: Ms Seiko Hashimoto, 55, who retains her position as Olympic Minister; and Ms Yuko Kamikawa, 67, who returns as Justice Minister, a role she has served from 2014 to 2015 and from 2017 to 2018.
The average age of the Cabinet is 60.4, with just one minister is under the age of 50: Mr Shinjiro Koizumi, 39, who keeps his position as Environment Minister.
And only five are first-time ministers, with the biggest surprise being the appointment of Mr Abe's blood brother Nobuo Kishi, 61, as defence minister after a resume of junior ministerial appointments.
Mr Kishi, who was adopted into Mr Abe's maternal family at birth, shares the name of former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, who led the country from 1957 to 1960 and was briefly suspected to be a Class A war criminal by the Allied occupiers.
He succeeds Mr Taro Kono, 57, who switches portfolios to become administrative reform minister, a position he held from 2015 to 2016. Mr Kono will also concurrently be minister-in-charge of Okinawa and Northern Territories issues.
Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano told The Straits Times that the Cabinet "is basically Abe 3.0". He said: "It is a continuation of the Abe government without Abe, and it almost looks like a minor Cabinet reshuffle."
He wonders if Mr Kono is being sidelined for decisions like the surprise U-turn to ditch the land-based Aegis Ashore missile system - one that was reportedly made without consulting the senior LDP leadership - and for his candidness, with recent comments singling out China as a "security threat" and speculating that a snap election will happen next month.
"It is similar to how Abe sidelined Ishiba while riding on his popularity," Dr Nakano said. "Abe gave Ishiba the regional revitalisation post, which is on paper important, but does not give him much room to shine."
He noted that the administrative reforms portfolio is, on paper, important, and Mr Suga has stressed his intention to reform the bureaucracy by reducing inefficiencies. But Dr Nakano said: "But it's not a real ministry - it's a position without a proper bureaucracy and Kono will not be able to do much."