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Abe Reshuffles Cabinet, Consolidates power but Challenges mount

The day Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi departed Japan on 3 September 2014 after a successful visit, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo reshuffled the Cabinet and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership. This was the first reshuffle of the Cabinet since winning a second term as prime minister in December 2012. The first Cabinet continued for 617 days without any change, thereby set a post-war record for longevity. His first Cabinet during his first term as prime minister in 2006 had lasted 366 days. Few trends are discernible from the reshuffle that would demonstrate Abe as a shrewd and matured politician with long-term vision and with intention to remain in power for quite some time so that the third arrow of his “Abenomics” becomes successful.

Emphasis on stability

The first and foremost objective behind the reshuffle was to ensure stability of the government. This meant accommodating members critical of some of Abe’s policies, both domestic and foreign, and thereby distributing accountability and responsibility to those holding high office. Since Koizumi Junichiro retired from Japan’s political scene, Japan saw so many prime ministers coming and going in so quick succession that the people even lost count. That meant political instability, which adversely affected the economy as the government of the day could not steer clear policy for the country’s future. With Abe assuming office in December 2012, that phase was over, resulting in continuing high-level of popularity of the government.

In previous governments, some ministers had created unnecessary controversies by making unwanted remarks on women issues or relating to Japan’s neighbours, thereby damaging the government’s popularity. Even in Abe’s first Cabinet, education minister Hakubun Shimomura and internal affairs minister Yoshitaka Shindo with image of right-leaning and historical revisionists were restrained from making observations that would have been seen contrary to the government’s views. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga had issued a demarche that only he and Abe would make statement whenever necessary on sensitive historical issues such as Yasukuni Shrine and “comfort women”, which other Cabinet members were only allowed to repeat as the official government line word by word. Abe hopes that the same principle would be followed by the new Cabinet members. [1] This was a shrewd move to arrest tensions with South Korea and China, the two neighbours who remain unhappy with Japan’s role in World War II.

Women in Cabinet

In the reshuffled Cabinet, Abe retained six of the original 18 ministers. Though some remained frustrated as they were aspiring for some Cabinet posts, Abe had to strike a balance between different factions and had to opt for a mix of experienced ministers as well as bring in fresh faces. What was striking Abe inducted five women in the Cabinet as ministers, in a show of the confirmation of his commitment to promote the status of women in a society that is perceived as male-dominated. The move still stopped short of achieving his self-imposed goal of boosting the proportion of women in his Cabinet to at least 30 percent. This showed that the road to elevate women’s status is still long. [2]

From the LDP’s small pool of 40 female lawmakers where 90 per cent of the party is male, Abe chose five female as ministers. The five women ministers in the Cabinet are Midori Matsushima (Justice), Eriko Yamatani (abduction issue), Yuko Obuchi (trade), Haruko Arimura (female empowerment and administrative reforms) and Sanae Takaichi (internal affairs and communication). Most of them are right-wingers who share Abe’s attitude on history. Takaichi strongly supports Japan’s return to nuclear power and espouses right-wing views on Japanese history. She visits Yasukuni every year on 15 August marking Japan’s surrender. Like Takaichi, Eriko too regularly visit Yasukuni Shrine but has a lower profile than Takaichi. Haruko too promotes lawmakers to visit Yasukuni. Yuko, 40, daughter of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, represents the generation of younger, more politically moderate female politicians. A mother of two boys, aged 4 and 6, Yuko became the youngest Cabinet minister when she accepted the gender portfolio at the age of 34 in 2008 and became the first serving minister to give birth to a son while serving as a minister. She took over her father’s Gunma constituency when her father died in office after a stroke in April 2000. Yuko publicly backs the right of married women to use their maiden names rather than adopt their husband’s surname and is an advocate for better child care. [3]

In addition to the five women to his new Cabinet, Abe appointed Tomomi Inada as chairwoman of the LDP Policy Research Council. Yet some experts warn that in taking up women’s cause and in his attempt to bring in more women into Japan’s labour force, Abe is making light of the difficult reality surrounding women in Japan and is keen only to raise his popularity. Abe has made his government’s objective to attach importance to efforts to raise the proportion of women in leadership positions in both public and private sectors to at least 30 per cent by 2020 as part of his growth strategy. He was keen to appoint a “record number” of women to the Cabinet as a demonstration of showing his stance on proactively promoting women’s social advancement but his final decision to have only five just matched the record of the same number that Koizumi had in his first Cabinet.

In view of the declining birth rate, drawing more women into the labour force would seem to be the right and realistic strategy for any progressive government. Like in other fields, in politics also the proportion of women is dismal. “The percentage of women to Diet members stops short of the global average of about 20 per cent. According to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, Japan is ranked 162th among 188 countries of the world in the percentage of women as House of Representatives lawmakers. Japan is the lowest among industrial nations in this world.” [4]

In the meantime, more numbers of women are demanding greater representation in the government. In the previous Cabinet, Abe had only two female ministers and were not even given key Cabinet posts. Masako Mori, former minister in charge of gender equality and measures to tackle Japan’s declining birth rate, for example, demanded that both ruling and opposition parties should increase the number of female candidates in the Diet.

The DPJ President Banri Kaieda, however, was not pleased with Abe’s choice of ministers. He saw no freshness in the reshuffle and slammed Abe’s new Cabinet as more of the same. He also criticised Abe’s choice of female lawmakers, questioning whether those appointed really represent his campaign to empower women.

New Challenges

Having ensured stability at least for the time being, Abe in his second Cabinet is likely to confront with new challenges. The early success of the first two arrows of “Abenomics” – a set of super aggressive monetary easing, more public works spending and structural economic reforms to raise Japan’s long-term growth potentials made him popular among the public. Abenomics helped boost stock prices and pushed down the yen’s value, thereby benefitted the rich and export-driven industries. But wage in real terms continued to fall, adversely impacting the standard of living of the common man. Economists have started questioning if Abenomics would remain valid and be sustainable over the long term. Doubts have surfaced as the “third arrow” in Abenomics heads to a deadlock.

Early in 2015, there will be nationwide local election and LDP’s efforts will be to win. With a view to achieve this, Abe is enthusiastic to rectify population decline and the excessive concentration of the population and industry in Tokyo. He is keen “to create a system in which local governments and businesses can use their ingenuity and creativity to vitalize local economies”.[5] The truism, however, is that it is extremely difficult for the government to achieve its goal of maintaining Japan’s population at over 100 million for at least the next 50 years, given the changing attitude of the Japanese women and other social related factors associated with population decline. The government shall have no choice but to continue to create a social security system that can respond to the ultra-aging population and declining birth rate despite the critical fiscal situation.[6]

Consumption tax issue

The consumption tax issue is another point on which Abe has to take the final decision. Japan is scheduled to raise the consumption tax again to 10 per cent in October 2015. Though Abe has said that he would take the final call on this by the end of 2014, there are demands that the government should consider introducing lower tax rates for daily necessities such as foodstuffs to help the financial burden on taxpayers. But if Abe backs off for the scheduled sales tax hike, it could arouse mistrust among foreign investors over Japan’s fiscal sustainability. If the tax is raised, it could fuel frustrations among the people over the economy. Abe would be facing critical choices.

In 2012, the LDP, New Komeito and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) had reached an agreement to raise the consumption tax in a phased manner. Accordingly, it was raised from 5 to 8 per cent in April 2014 and is scheduled to be raised to 10 per cent in October 2015. Though Abe would take the final decision by the end of 2014, the indicators are that the tax would be raised. This is because Abe has appointed two tax-hike advocates to key ministerial and ruling party posts – former Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki to LDP secretary-general and the retention of Taro Aso as deputy prime minister and finance minister. Tanigaki was serving as LDP president when the agreement was reached in 2012 to raise the consumption tax to 10 per cent. He was finance minister in Koizumi’s cabinet and has the reputation of an advocate of fiscal reconstruction.

Some officials in the finance ministry believe that since Abe was not involved in the 2012 tripartite agreement to raise the tax to 10 per cent, he may not indeed opt for a tax hike. But the appointment of Tanigaki as the secretary-general of the party sends the message that he government shall carry out the sales tax hike. Though Tanigaki was buoyant when he remarked that while the government shall proceed with the plan in accordance with the law, it will also closely follow economic trends of the time at the same time. It remains unclear if Tanigaki would stick to his tax-boost policy because as secretary-general of the party, he would be tasked with leading nation-wide local elections early in 2015.[7]

How Abe, Tanigaki and Aso would navigate through the difficult time remains to be seen. This is because the current business sentiment looks very depressed. Consumer demand has fallen when the sales tax was increased from 5 to 8 per cent in April 2014. “The level of plunge marked the first of its kind since the aftermath of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. The slowdown in consumer spending is feared to continue further because of the prolonged heavy rain in western Japan and elsewhere this summer.” [8] There remains a fear that postponing the sales tax hike could lead to plunging prices of government bonds and rising interest rates. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, is wary of the possibility of further economic slowdowns due to the consumption tax raise. It is also likely that Shigeru Ishiba, former LDP secretary-general who was appointed to the post of minister in charge of vitalizing local economies in Japan, may express reservations about the tax hike to avoid adverse effects on local economies.

The Abe government is keen to reactivate some of the country’s nuclear power plants, which remain suspended in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. However, anti-nuclear sentiment is pretty strong in Japan and any pursuit to restart the mothballed reactors could dampen Abe’s popularity.

Consolidation of political power

Shigeru Ishiba seemed to be a strong political rival to Abe and Abe was looking for an opportunity to clip his wings. While exercising the reshuffle, he decided to remove the obstacle by sacking Ishiba as the LDP secretary-general, a move widely seen as a bid to reduce Ishiba’s political clout in the run-up to the next LDP presidential race in September 2015. Abe’s move was demonstrative of the fact that he eyes in the office of Prime Minister beyond the LDP’s next presidential election by remaining as LDP chief.

But the exercise of the choice was not smooth for Abe. While seeking stability, Abe kept everyone guessing until the last minute when he named former Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki as party secretary-secretary in place of Ishiba, whom he saw as a potential political rival. Interestingly, Tanigaki had previously served as leader of the LDP, a higher position. How did this happen?

It transpired later that Abe approached Tanigaki in late August suggesting that he accepts the post of secretary-general of the LDP. When Tanigaki agreed, it proved that for the first time a person who had previously served leader of the party agreed to assume the lower position of secretary-general. After consulting Bunmei Ibuki, lawmaker from Kyoto, Tanigaki agreed to accept the post and made his decision known a day before Abe effected the reshuffle.[9]

Tanigaki, 69, is a veteran lawmaker with wide experience and roping him into the Cabinet meant to keep the members united without disturbing the balance of power between intraparty factions. In the past, Tanigaki held a number of key positions, including LDP president, policy chief, finance minister and infrastructure minister. He also heads a small intraparty faction consisting of 29 members. The secretary-general’s post is equally powerful as he can control party funds and has the power to decide the official party candidate in national elections. [10]

Tanigaki’s tasks are clearly cut out. The immediate tasks are to handle the upcoming gubernatorial races in Fukushima Prefecture in October and in Okinawa Prefecture in November. These will be followed by nationwide local elections in spring of 2015. While in Fukushima, revitalization of the prefecture continues to remain an issue after the nuclear disaster and tsunami, Japan’s security issue and regional development are dominant in Okinawa. The LDP suffered a drubbing in the gubernatorial election in Shiga Prefecture in July and that race came on the heels of the Abe Cabinet’s decision to re-interpret the war-renouncing Constitution to open up new ways to use the Self-Defense Forces. Abe hopes that the elections in Okinawa and Fukushima under Tanigaki’s charge, the LDP shall sail through.

The LDP has already secured a position in the Diet without any formidable rivals, and the administration was not threatened by the opposition. An ambitious Abe who wants to be re-elected as LDP president and extend the life of his administration, saw in Ishiba as a potential rival. In a shrewd manoeuvre, Abe met with Ishiba in late July and offered him a Cabinet post to work on security legislation. Ishiba refused. They met again on 29 August, and this time Abe succeeded in convincing Ishiba to accept the positions of minister in charge of overcoming population decline and vitalizing local economies in Japan, and minister of state for the national strategic special zones. None of Ishiba’s aides were given Cabinet posts, however. [11]

After settling the selection of the LDP secretary-general, Abe picked up Toshihiro Nikai, 75, former transport minister and head of the lower house Budget Committee, as chairman of the LDP’s top decision-making General Council. Like Tanigaki, Nikai heads an intraparty faction of 28 members and known for his “bridge-building abilities”.[12] A former chairman of the Lower House Budget Committee, Nikai also served as chairman of the General Council between 2007 and 2008 under Abe.

Nikai is close to China, and maintains an impressive network of contacts in Beijing. His appointment as chairman of the party’s top decision-making body could be an asset for Abe as he tries to mend Japan’s frayed ties with China and hopes to break the ice in November when he travels to Beijing for the APEC meeting. Nikai also has connections with the LDP’s junior coalition partner New Komeito. Koya Nishikawa, who serves as secretary-general of Nikai’s faction was handed a Cabinet post, as were Akinori Eto, Yoshio Mochizuki and Wataru Takeshita. This move was seen as promoting factional balance. Abe chose Tomomi Inada as LDP policy chief, and Eriko Yamatani as minister in charge of the abduction issue. By bringing in veteran politicians such as Tanigaki and Nikai, Abe aimed to boost stability of his administration.

But by bringing in his rival Ishiba into the Cabinet, Abe played the biggest master stroke. This was done to make his stance strong ahead of the September 2015 LDP leadership election. With this, the chances of the lower house being dissolved at an early date for a general election are not in the horizon. Though Abe has a long term vision to stay in power, his stakes are high. The consumption tax hike and restart of idled nuclear reactors issues will test Abe’s leadership. Further, if the LDP faces defeat in the regional elections in early 2015, questions will be raised on Abe’s leadership. Abe would depend upon both Tanigaki and Nikai, with adequate election experience to bail him out.

The reshuffle also reflected a balance between intraparty factions. Abe named Yuko Obuchi, former minister in charge of measures for the declining birth rate, as economy, trade and industry minister and upper house member Haruko Arimura as minister in charge of promoting women’s active participation. The Abe administration’s attitude toward promoting women’s participation in society as part of its growth strategy as well as its efforts to ensure true gender equality will now be open to test. Abe also retained Akira Amari, minister in charge of economic revitalization and Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, which Abe is pushing Japan to join.

Abe’s choice of Akinori Eto as minister in charge of security legislation was interesting, as Ito serves as a Cabinet minister for the first time. How he is going to defend Abe’s policy on Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense in Diet deliberations will be interesting to watch. Initially, Abe offered Ishiba the post of minister in charge of security legislation as being a former defence minister Ishiba’s knowledge about security matters is quite sound. But both Abe and Ishiba differed over security policies of the country. While Ishiba insisted for an early enactment of a basic law on national security to allow Japan to broadly exercise the right to collective self-defence, Abe was hesitant to enact such legislation. With such differences, it remains a mystery how Ishiba accepted a Cabinet position. Many thought he should have waited to debate the issue in the next party leadership race in September 2015. Abe accommodated Ishiba as a shrewd political move because leaving out Ishiba would have fanned intraparty conflict and therefore isolating Ishiba was not an option for Abe. Abe does not want to hasten enacting legislation aimed at allowing Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defence as he does not want to displease LDP’s coalition partner New Komeito. When the issue comes up for debate, it will be a real test for the new minister Ito.

Abe expects Ito as defense minister in charge of security legislation “to provide the public with in-depth explanations and gain their understanding over an extremely broad range of matters – from the so-called ‘gray-zone situations where Japan has not come under armed attack and the right to collective self-defense, to United Nations peacekeeping operations”. When the opposition parties grill the government in the Diet discussions over its security policy, Ito’s ability to defend and explain will be put to real test. Ito has assured to “pursue the task strenuously in collaboration with Cabinet ministers concerned”.

A section of the country’s population is quite not happy with some of Abe administration’s policies. They see an element of high-handedness in Abe’s policies stemming from landslide victory in the upper house election in 2013 and thereby enjoying majority support in both the chambers. This, they see, in his intent to restart the mothballed nuclear reactors, thereby returning the country’s energy policy to the pre-Fukushima nuclear disaster policy, changing the interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution through a Cabinet decision on 1 July to open the way for Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defence and thus neutralising some of his popularity earned from the first two arrows of “Abenomics”.

Foreign policy challenges

Improving Japan’s strained relations with its neighbours also factored in his choice of ministers. His appointment of Tanigaki as LDP secretary-general is reflective of his keenness to improve ties with China as Tanigaki is known as a moderate towards China. Ties with both China and South Korea have remained chilled over territorial issues and historical perceptions. Abe’s diplomatic forays in strengthening ties with India, Vietnam, Australia and other friendly countries, besides the US, has been to check China and therefore forms the core of his diplomatic and national security policy. Though Abe has travelled to nearly fifty countries around the world since coming to power, no summit meetings with China and South Korea have been possible so far. Abe hopes to hold summit talks with the Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye when he travels to Beijing in November to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum’s summit conference.

Abe retained Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida as he seeks continuity in his government’s foreign policies. Abe also attaches importance to Japan’s relations with Russia and India in addition to strengthening the Japan-U.S. security arrangement. He has opened up dialogue with North Korea with a view to resolve the issue of abduction of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s. He convinced the Kim Jong-un regime to reinvestigate into the safety and whereabouts of missing Japanese abduction victims, which is at a crucial phase now. At a time when Pyongyang’s ties with Beijing, its long time ally, having been strained, Abe has to judge carefully if Pyongyang’s overtures are sincere. Pyongyang has the dubious reputation of indulging in deception, betrayal and abrupt turnaround and may be using this opportunity as a bargaining chip to extract economic assistance from Tokyo. Abe ought to weigh the political cost if it ends up in return of few of the abductees, if at all, and not “all of the abductees” as hopes, lest his popularity could quickly plummet. But by trying to reach out to Pyongyang, Abe may be seen as complicating Japan’s relations with China and South Korea and also paving the way for Beijing and Seoul to come closer.

However, so long as ties with China and South Korea remain chilled, Abe’s conduct of neighbourhood diplomatic policies would remain to be tested for its success. Despite Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin is expected to visit Japan soon as Abe keeps the door open to resolve the territorial issue with Russia. In view of such forthcoming international events, it made sense to retain Kishida as there would be continuity in policies.

One can also read Abe’s keenness to improve ties with China in the reshuffle as both Tanigaki and Nikai are pro-China. Tanigaki had visited Beijing in November 2007 and held talks with Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, when he was then a secretary of the Communist Party of China. It is likely that Abe would ask Tanigaki and others to visit China shortly to lay the groundwork for a Japan-China summit meeting that Abe is keen to materialize soon. At a news conference on 3 September, Nikai pledged his support for the Abe government in improving bilateral ties with Japan’s neighbours. Chinese leaders have refused to meet Abe one-on-one since December 2012 as a way to express their displeasure with the territorial dispute involving the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013. President Park of South Korea is equally irked on the comfort women issue. It remains unclear if Abe’s Cabinet reshuffle will break new ground in meeting the foreign relations challenges that Japan faces. As it transpires, therefore, though Abe seems secure with a stable government, he has to tread through a difficult path in addressing pressing domestic economic and foreign policy issues. The coming months would reveal how Abe is dealing with such challenges. —————— (The writer Dr. Rajaram Panda is The Japan Foundation Fellow at Reitaku University, Chiba, JAPAN. E-mail:

[1] Reiji Yoshida, “Abe reshuffles Cabinet with an eye on stability”, The Japan Times, 3 September 2014, stability/#.VAa8eiB8tjo [2] “PM Abe appoints 5 women to Cabinet, but long way to go to elevate women’s status”, Mainichi Japan, 4 September 2014, [3] Mizuho Aoki and Eric Johnston, “Abe names five women to his reshuffled lineup”, The Japan Times, 4 September 2014. [4] “PM Abe appoints 5 women to Cabinet, but long way to go to elevate women’s status”, n.2. [5] “Reshuffled Abe Cabinet should improve Japan’s ties with neighbours”, Mainichi Japan, 4 September, editorial, [6] Ibid. [7] “Reshuffled Abe Cabinet to be tested over ability to implement policies”, Mainichi Japan, 4 September 2014, [8] Ibid. [9] “With new Cabinet lineup, Abe looks ahead to next party leadership election”, Mainichi Japan, 4 September 2014, [10] Reiji Yoshida and Mizuho Aoki, “Abe taps Tanigaki as LDP No. 2, hawkish Inada as party policy chief”, The Japan Times, 3 September 2014, tanigaki-ldp-secretary-general-post-cabinet-reshuffle/#.VAa86CB8tjo [11] For the differences in stances between Abe and Ishiba, see “Abe, Ishiba rift deepens”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, 24 August 2014, [12] Yoshida and Aoki, n. 10.

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