By Linda Sieg and Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appointed conservative ally Tomomi Inada as defense minister on Wednesday, which risked upsetting China and South Korea, as part of a limited cabinet reshuffle that left most top posts unchanged.
Inada, previously the ruling party policy chief, shares Abe’s goal of revising the post-war, pacifist constitution, which some conservatives consider a humiliating symbol of Japan’s World War Two defeat.
She also regularly visits Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, which China and South Korea see as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.
Japan’s relations with Beijing and Seoul have often been frayed by the legacy of Japan’s military aggression before and during World War Two.
“Ms Inada is an ultra-conservative politician and this will be taken as preparation for achieving constitutional revision and adopting a stern stance towards China,” said Takashi Kawakami, a security expert at Takushoku University.
Inada, a 57-year-old lawyer, will be the second woman to hold the defense post. The first, Yuriko Koike, who held the job briefly in 2007, was recently elected Tokyo governor.
Abe is trying to rekindle economic growth and cope with several diplomatic challenges as he ponders the possibility of staying in office after his term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) ends in 2018.
He is expected to travel to China in September for a Group of 20 summit, where he may meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Sino-Japanese ties have also been strained by a row over tiny isles in the East China Sea and China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
TOP PARTY POSTS
Abe, who took office in December 2012, will retain his right-hand man, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, along with Finance Minister Taro Aso and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
Economics Minister Nobuteru Ishihara will also be kept on along with Health, Welfare and Labour Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko will become trade and industry minister.
Tamayo Marukawa, who served as environment minister in the previous cabinet, was appointed minister in charge of overseeing preparations for Tokyo’s 2020 Summer Olympic Games.
Shigeru Ishiba, minister for regional revitalisation, left the cabinet to prepare for a run at replacing Abe as prime minister when his term as LDP leader expires.
Abe also appointed a new LDP executive line-up.
The appointment of Toshihiro Nikai, 77, as LDP secretary general was seen as signalling Abe’s hopes for a third term. Nikai has said he would support an extension for Abe, which would require a change in party rules.
On Tuesday, Abe’s outgoing cabinet approved 13.5 trillion yen ($133.58 billion) in fiscal steps to try to revive the economy.
But some analysts worry Abe will devote too much energy to trying to revise the constitution and be distracted from the economy.
(Additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko)