Abe’s cabinet reshuffle

Asia Politics World

Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW Canberra

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reshuffle of senior cabinet and ruling party posts on 11 September 2019 was guided by several priorities. Abe sought first to preserve the so-called ‘2A+1S’ (Shinzo Abe, Taro Aso and Yoshihide Suga), the key group in charge of running his government. The relationship between Abe and these stalwarts is characterised by unfailing mutual loyalty and support. They share one overriding objective: to preserve Abe’s premiership and his government at all costs. This joint sentiment is a key source of regime stability under Abe.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, centre, leads the way, coming down the stairs for an official photo session following the first meeting of his reshuffled Cabinet at the prime ministers office in Tokyo, Japan, 11 September 2019 (Photo: AFLO/Natsuki Sakai).

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, centre, leads the way, coming down the stairs for an official photo session following the first meeting of his reshuffled Cabinet at the prime ministers office in Tokyo, Japan, 11 September 2019 (Photo: AFLO/Natsuki Sakai).

Just as important was Abe’s desire to keep the ruling party under the firm control of another staunch loyalist — Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai — who has proved indispensable in coordinating across the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on sensitive policy issues. He helped to deliver agricultural cooperative reform and has gone out of his way to demonstrate his credentials on constitutional reform. Abe regards him as having the best political skills in the party. All LDP prime ministers know that the ruling party can be an unreliable and unruly entity on policy issues and so Nikai is essential in helping to maintain tight control over LDP Diet members.

Other loyal operatives in Abe’s administration were also rewarded. Takashi Imai — the leading ‘Kantei bureaucrat’ and foreign policy operative in Abe’s administration nicknamed ‘Abe’s avatar’ – was given the post of ‘Special Adviser to the Prime Minister’. Similarly, Abe’s intelligence chief, former National Police Agency bureaucrat and the most frequent visitor to his office, Shigeru Kitamura, was appointed chief of the National Security Secretariat (NSS). He replaced the NSS’s first-ever head, the ‘irreplaceable’ Shotaro Yachi, who has been a trusted Abe emissary on a number of delicate foreign policy missions. The appointment of Kitamura — nicknamed by his critics as the ‘Eichmann of the Prime Minister’s Office’ — raises the spectre of foreign policy being dominated by a former police bureaucrat.

Those showing policy leadership and an ability to deal successfully with important allies and others on issues of critical national importance were also recognised. Toshimitsu Motegi, who complemented Abe’s approach to handling the Trump administration with their ‘good guy, bad guy’ strategy on bilateral trade issues, was appointed to lead national diplomacy as Foreign Minister. And the now former foreign minister Taro Kono who showed an extremely tough side in managing contentious issues with South Korea — including publicly reprimanding the South Korean ambassador — has been rewarded with the top defence post. This appointment sends a message to South Korea that Kono’s ministerial performance had the backing of the Abe administration.

Abe also rewarded right-wing politicians who are close to him — so-called ‘ideological friends’ who are being increasingly pushed to the forefront of his administration — such as LDP Acting Secretary-General Koichi Hagiuda who was appointed Education Minister. As a member of the ultranationalist Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), which seeks to promote patriotic education, he can be considered ‘reliable’ as the government’s policy leader on national education. In his previous positions as a senior LDP executive and earlier as deputy chief cabinet secretary and nominal head of the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, Hagiuda has been a close aide and supporter of Abe through thick and thin, including a series of corruption scandals that marred his government in 2017–18. 

Hagiuda once explained how Abe’s ambition was to ‘break free of the “post-war regime”’, with the constitution ‘drafted in one short week under [US General Douglas] MacArthur’s occupation’ being the ‘most symbolic of that’.

Other ideological allies and staunch supporters of constitutional reform include Hakubun Shimomura, who was appointed as Chairman of the LDP’s Election Strategy Committee, and Sanae Takaichi. Shimomura wants to use his new position to promote the debate on constitutional reform while Takaichi, as Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, can be expected to be tough on issues relating to media freedom. Takaichi also does what Abe cannot do but would like to — regularly visit the Yasukuni Shrine. 

Like Hagiuda, Shimomura and Takaichi (along with Aso and Suga) are members of the historical revisionist Nippon Kaigi, as are many other Abe appointees in the recent reshuffle such as Yasutoshi Nishimura (Economic Revitalization Minister), Katsunobu Kato (Health, Labour and Welfare Minister), Taku Eto (Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister) and Shunichi Suzuki (LDP General Council Chairman).

To bring a touch of glamour and star power to his cabinet line-up, as well as a more reformist perspective, Abe selected Shinjiro Koizumi as Environment Minister. In 2017, when Koizumi was LDP Agriculture and Forestry Division director, agricultural policy-related meetings attracted so many Diet members that the venues were completely packed. Not only does Koizumi profess an ambition to want to be prime minister, but he is expected to realise this ambition, leap-frogging the usual order of succession among those awaiting their ‘turn’ such as Fumio Kishida who remains in his key position as Chairman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council.

In selecting Koizumi, Abe is clearly showing that he feels secure enough in his post to promote the most popular ‘heir to the throne’ to a ministerial position — and someone who did not even support him in the last election for the party presidency. Abe calculated that, on balance, Koizumi is more of a plus than a minus for his administration. Given that the vast majority of new ministers and party executives qualified for their positions because they are close allies and proactive supporters of his bid for constitutional change during his current tenure, Abe could afford to indulge himself with the appointment of Koizumi, who is neither.

Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, the University of New South Wales, Canberra.

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