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Abe’s Cabinet Reshuffle: Aim Behind The Exercise – Analysis

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In a further step to cement his legacy, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo reshuffled his Cabinet, the fourth since he came into power, on September 11, 2019, and first since October 2018, changing ministers in 17 of the 19 posts and bringing in 13 first timers, the highest figure for any he has formed.

The basic motto for Abe as announced at a press conference has been to “tackle drastic reforms without being restricted by conventional concepts” and that his Cabinet is for “stability and challenge”. By doing this, Abe wishes to leave political legacies, such as achieving his long-cherished goal of revising the war-renouncing Constitution, during the two years left in his term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Along with reshuffle, Abe also revamped the LDP leadership team.

In the reshuffle, two key members of the Abe administration – Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, 78, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga, 70, – were retained in their respective posts. First-time ministers include LDP rising star Shinjiro Koizumi, 38, and son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who became environment minister. He is the third-youngest person to have won a cabinet seat in the postwar period. Among Abe’ close aides included former LDP Executive Acting Secretary General Koichi Hagiuda, 56, who became education, culture, sports, science and technology minister, and former Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura, 56, who became economic revitalization minister. Seiko Hashimoto, 54, an Olympic speed-skating bronze medalist and former LDP leader in the House of Councillors, assumed the post of minister for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics with less than a year until the event. Among familiar faces, Taro Kono, 56, switched from foreign to defense minister, replacing Takeshi Iwaya. Toshimitsu Motegi, 63, former economic revitalization minister, succeeded Kono as foreign minister.

Sanae Takaichi, 58, head of the steering committee of the House of Representatives, and former LDP General Council Chairman Katsunobu Kato, 63, came back as internal affairs and communications minister and health, labor and welfare minister, respectively. Suga, Koizumi, Motegi, Kono and Kato, as well as Fumio Kishida, reappointed chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council, are all viewed as potential successors to Abe. The prime minister apparently hopes to sustain the unifying force within his administration by having the politicians compete with each other.

What is Abe’s agenda behind the reshuffle? As Japan’s second-longest serving prime minister seeking stability, Abe’s primary aim seems to be to pursue outstanding issues such as social welfare reform as well as paving the way for constitutional revision. Even in his seventh year as prime minister and with solid political foundation, Abe has not lost focus and confident that he is on the cusp of creating a new Japan in the new Reiwa era to reach the horizon of overcoming the challenge of constitutional revision.

How is the new Cabinet going to be different from his previous ones? With new ministers who are willing to do Abe’s bidding and see policies come to fruition, Abe’s leadership will showcase the most and create an environment where he can tackle the issues he wants to work on. Although 13 of the 19 ministers hold ministerial positions for the first time, the majority of them are either trusted lieutenants of Abe or unsurprising candidates who were recommended by various factions. The only exception is Shinjiro Koizumi, who has been appointed environment minister. The 38-year-old legislator is neither a devotee to Abe nor an inclusion on a faction recommendation list, though elected to office four times.

Despite accommodating legislators loyal to him, Abe hopes to make some progress on issues that are important to him, such as the abductee issue with North Korea, constitutional revision and negotiations with Russia over disputed islands off Hokkaido. Abe hopes to go down in history as the first-ever prime minister to amend Japan’s pacifist Constitution. While constitutional revision is top priority for Abe, his immediate priority attention could be on issues such as the economy and foreign policy given the lack of appetite for such change among the public. He has to see that the hike of consumption tax from 8 to 10 per cent in October does not cause disaffection among the people.

Though Abe wants to revise Article 9 of the Constitution, he also knows that many parties are opposed to such a move. Abe has indicated that he wants to change the country’s supreme law so it clarifies the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces, while maintaining the clause renouncing war. However, it remains unclear as to what extent Abe can go on revising Article 9. The question that would remain unanswered is, would he be happy to go down in history as the first prime minister to bring about constitutional revision in general, or the prime minister who revised Article 9.

In November, Abe is set to become the longest-serving prime minister, surpassing the previous record set by Taro Katsura who served three terms from 1901 to 1906, 1908 to 1911 and 1912 to 1913. Abe’s steady efforts to deal with domestic and foreign issues have led to him gaining consecutive national election wins. The Abe administration is entering its final stage. What will it try to accomplish before the end of its term? And what policy line will it lay and entrust to its successor? It must scrutinize policy priorities from a medium- and long-range perspective and carry them out strategically.

Achieving economic recovery shall be another primary focus for the new Cabinet. Though corporate earnings and employment indicators have improved somewhat, there are few tangible effects of the economic recovery. With the impending hike of the consumption tax, consumer spending could be depressed and therefore wage revision could be more compelling, posing a new challenge to the Abe administration. The possibility of negative fallout of the US-China trade friction could also impact the Japanese economy. Appropriate policy response to this new challenge could be another bother for Abe.

Though the hike of the consumption tax rate from 8 to 10 percent shall take effect on October 1, risking depressed consumer spending, the revenue accruing from the hike will be a stable source of funds for maintaining the social security system. Japan is becoming a super-aging society ahead of other nations, with the number of centenarians crossing 70,000 for the first time in September 2019.

An environment must be created in which many people work for as long as they can, thereby becoming sources of support for the social security system. There is a new concept of sending the retirees to schools and colleges for re-education so that their skills acquired over the years could be utilized more appropriately in the remaining years of their life. In view of the nation’s declining birthrate, young people need assistance and encouragement to raise more children. Such support system shall be in tune with Abe’s approach in dealing with the country’s social security system oriented to all generations.

Another consideration can be asking the elderly people who are financially better off to shoulder a greater burden to support the government’s social security scheme. The government has already announced to establish a new council tasked with considering revisions to the social security system. One possibility of the reform measures could bring pain to some but that would be in the larger interests of the people. The prime minister is expected to have the support of the opposition to such reform measures.

In the foreign policy front, Abe’s plate is full. President Donald Trump championing an “America First” policy, it is a challenge for Abe to persuade Trump to return to a system of international cooperation in accordance of global rules and not impose unilateral decisions on others. Being aware of the deteriorating security situation in Japan’s neighbourhood, preparing Japan to cope with the emerging security challenge is another challenge. North Korea’s relentless surge in the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, and further complicated by both China and Russia building up their military, Abe is confronted with challenge to defend Japan’s security interests.

The resolution to the abduction issue with North Korea looks like a mirage. Abe’s efforts to seek a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un has been rebuffed by Kim time and again. Japan is the only country that is left out from the summit diplomacy as Kim has had summit meetings with Trump of the US, Moon of South Korea, Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Japan’s relations with South Korea are fraying due to reasons including the issue of South Korean former wartime requisitioned workers. Abe cannot afford to further deteriorate relations with South Korea and see that antagonism between Japan and South Korea does not hinder military cooperation among Tokyo, Washington and Seoul.

Revision of the Constitution

The process of revising an article of the Constitution being complicated, and with the present situation making the process almost impossible, Abe’s long-cherished goal to amend the Constitution during his term in office could also look like a mirage. Any initiative to change the top law must pass through many stages, including discussions between the ruling parties and forging a consensus with opposition parties. It is vital that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party lays the groundwork for an environment in which such discussions can go ahead.

Abe has already constituted a Constitution Commission of the Diet in order to draft an amendment proposal and has urged LDP executives “to strongly push forward” efforts to revise the Constitution. Unless Abe brings the opposition bloc to the negotiating table, his strong enthusiasm for constitutional revision shall remain a will-o-the-wisp.

The biggest road bloc could be that the public does not share Abe’s enthusiasm for introducing the first revisions to the pacifist constitution. It may be recalled that in 2018, Abe named key ideological allies to the LDP executive lineup to push forward discussions on constitutional revisions. That move only stiffened resistance from the opposition parties and virtually no debate took place in the Diet.

This time around, Abe is seeking cooperation from LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and Fumio Ishida, the party’s policy chief, for their experience and network of ties with other parties. While Kishida is considered a dove among LDP lawmakers, Nikai has developed his own ties to counterparts in the opposition. Abe, therefore, expects that these two LDP executives could improve the party’s chances of bringing opposition parties to the Diet to discuss changes to the Constitution.

Having failed to get a supermajority in the July Upper House elections, the support of Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) from the opposition rank is not enough as resistance from other opposition parties, including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the leading opposition party, has strengthened. The CDP Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama has gone public in saying that Abe’s attempts shall go nowhere “because the public does not want it”.

In the most likely scenario, with the opposition outnumbering the ruling coalition in the Upper House, the opposition parties may not even enter talks regarding procedural matters, such as revising the national referendum law. Though Abe shall stay in power till October 2021 when the terms of the Lower House expire, Abe’s efforts are likely to face rough weather. His task is not easy.

Rethinking on ties with the US?

Though Prime Minister Abe had been toying with the idea of revisiting Japan’s security policy for quite some time, President Trump’s unpredictable stances on the region’s security issue has given fresh impetus to Abe to pursue what he has been planning for some time.

Trump has been putting pressure on both the Asian allies – Japan and South Korea – to shoulder greater security burden for providing security umbrella by the US. The ‘free ride’ question has emerged as a new topic of academic discourse. From the Japanese perspective, America is no longer seen as a reliable ally and the Japanese government feels more convinced it should move away from its over reliance on the US security umbrella, which is why revising the pacifist constitution and rearming itself appear as an attractive option.

Even the question of Japan going nuclear in the wake of North Korean threat and declining trust with the US is being debated in certain academic circles. But as said earlier, Abe’s task is gigantic and he cannot be guaranteed of support of the Japanese public, who still remember the horrors of the world’s first atomic bombings.

Issue of Nuclear power

Even when Prime Minister Abe is working on amending the Constitution, a fresh controversy erupted following the reshuffle when the newly installed environment minister Shinjiro Koizumi said that Japan should close down all nuclear reactors to avoid a repeat of the Fukushima catastrophe in March 2011. Japan toughened safety measures introduced after the 2011 Fukushima tsunami and nuclear disaster and as a result some existing nuclear reactors face being closure. The views of Koizumi openly articulated are likely to prove controversial in the ruling LDP, which supports a return to nuclear power under new safety ruled imposed after Fukushima.

For the record, Japan’s nuclear regulator is overseen by Koizumi’s ministry. Three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi station run by Tokyo Electric Power melted down after being hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, spewing radiation that forced 160,000 people to flee, many never to return.

Before Fukushima, nuclear reactors supplied about 30 per cent of the country’s electricity. These are going through now a re-licensing process under new safety standards imposed after the disaster highlighted regulatory and operational failings. Japan has six reactors operating at present, which is a fraction of the 54 units that were operating before Fukushima. About 40 percent of the pre-Fukushima fleet is being decommissioned after operators decided it would be too expensive to refit them to meet the new safety requirements. Shinjiro seems to be following his father’s footstep who was a harsh critic of atomic energy after the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

No sooner Shinjiro voicing his opinion on the nuclear issue, his colleague industry minister Isshu Sugawara disputed by saying that the calls for no-nukes policy is “unrealistic”. The conflicting comments by cabinet members appointed after reshuffle highlight the abiding sensitivities of nuclear power in Japan, more than eight years after the Fukushima catastrophe caused mass evacuations and Japan’s worst energy crisis in the modern era.

While acknowledging that there are risks and fears about nuclear power, Sugawara said that ‘zero-nukes’ is at the moment and in the future, not realistic. It is interesting to note that while Japan’s nuclear regulator is overseen by Koizumi’s ministry, energy policy is set by Sugawara’s ministry. It is up to Abe how to clarify this confusion as his government has designated atomic power as an important element of the energy mix. The nuclear sector’s shutdown forced Japan to import record amounts of thermal coal and liquefied natural gas to replace the lost capacity, sending electricity bills for consumers and businesses higher. 

Reactions of China and South Korea to the reshuffle

The reactions from Japan’s two important neighbors were varied. While Seoul was wary, Beijing was hopeful about the reshuffle. In the light of the on-going disputes with South Korea, South Korean media raised concerns over Abe’s reshuffle but Chinese government officials voiced expectations of improved relations with the new administration.

The South Korean media criticized the appointment of Taro Kono as defense minister after having served as foreign minister. It transpired that Seoul was not happy that Kono was appointed as defence minister as it demonstrated only criticism of South Korea. Seoul felt that Abe’s choice of ministers meant that they shall push forward the position of the Japanese government on such issues as compensation for wartime Korean laborers and former “comfort women”.

However, reactions from Beijing were more welcoming to the reshuffle. China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that Kono in the past two years tried to improve and develop the China-Japan relationship and that working with Mortegi would mean reconstructing “a relationship that meets the demands of a new age”.

Possible future scenario

With the uncertainty lurking on the issue of amending the pacifist constitution, what could be Abe’s future strategy? Abe’s election slogan “Antei to Chosen” (stability and challenge) could soon change to “Hikigiwa to Shoso” (“timing of withdrawal” and “sense of restlessness”) given the complexity of issue, despite that he appointed all his close allies to Cabinet posts.

Abe’s restlessness could be stemming from the realization that his administration would have left no political legacy to speak of during the remaining two years. He could make little to no progress at all on the North Korean abduction issue that he had promised to the families of the abductees to bring their members so abducted from North Korea.

The Northern Territories issue with Russia too remains unresolved. Ties with South Korea are already strained over history issue. Tensions continue simmering with China on the territorial issue of Senkaku and history. His only legacy could be about the administration’s impressive longevity, a welcome change from the joke of “revolving chair” of the prime ministers that Japan saw in the post-Koizumi era.

Was the choice of Shinchiro Koizumi, the glamorous young politician and one-time rival to Abe, into his Cabinet a master stroke? Abe could be expecting that induction of this immensely popular legislator shall help the raising the Cabinet’s approval rating. In the scenario that when the rating remains high, Abe could toy with the idea of dissolving the Lower House, hold elections and win it, thereby improving his chance of revising the Constitution. That shall provide Abe an added opportunity to deal with other critical issues, such as social security system, pensions and way to help increase birthrate, besides graying population. Whether such a scenario would really unfold, the answer could be both Yes and No.



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Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow at IDSA, New Delhi, and until recently ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan, is at present Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India. E-mail: [email protected]

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