Japan’'s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leaves the prime minister’'s office in Tokyo on September 11, 2019. Abe made changes in his cabinet. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday reshuffled his cabinet, replacing or moving 17 of his 19 ministers, with high-profile changes taking place at the defense and foreign ministries.

He also offered his first ministerial post to an up-and-coming politician who is widely touted as a future national leader and doubled the number of women in his cabinet – to a grand total of two.

The reshuffle had been widely expected after Abe’s political machine, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, together with its junior coalition partner, Komeito, won upper house elections in July. The reshuffle included 13 new faces as Abe seeks to liven up his administration’s image and prepare the LDP for its “post-Abe era.”

Abe is expected to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in November, but his term as LDP president – and prime minister – ends in 2021. This timeline suggests that the new cabinet lineup will be the one in place as his long term of leadership enters its twilight.

The core veterans

Abe maintained two long-term political sidekicks in their positions: Finance Minister Taro Aso and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. According to Kyodo News, Abe will be leaning on these veterans to help navigate the country through a long-mooted consumption tax rise next month.

There were two high-profile seat changes. Hawkish Foreign Minister Taro Kono was appointed defense minister, while Economic Revitalization Minister Toshimitsu Motegi replaced him as foreign minister.

Kono will take the leading role as Japan upgrades its defense capabilities, increases defense spending and undertakes cost-sharing talks with the United States, which seeks greater spending by allies for US troops on foreign soil.

And he will be key to Abe’s long-term political ambition – a constitutional revision which would overturn post-World War II era constraints on the Japanese military.

Abe reportedly holds a high opinion of Motegi’s competence as a negotiator, particularly as regards his talks with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. Motegi, who has previously served as a deputy foreign minister, will also be a fresh face in talks with South Korea.

Seoul-Tokyo relations have plummeted amid a furious dispute that started in the historical arena over renewed demands for compensation for wartime forced labor.

The furies shifted to the diplomatic space and have now fully crossed into the economic sphere as Seoul and Tokyo slam export controls upon each other, potentially damaging the two countries trade partnership and roiling global supply chains.

The issue has even impacted security, after Seoul canceled an intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo.

Kono had a stormy relationship with his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha, with press photographers capturing their stony expressions and guarded body language in recent talks.

The fresh faces

The surprise appointment was Shinjiro Koizumi, the 38-year-old son of ex-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, as environment minister. The dashing-looking Koizumi Junior, who is popular, outspoken and is set to marry a TV star, has often been mentioned as a future prime minister. Japanese media speculate that he will offer Abe’s brain trust a fresh look.

His appointment is a high-profile brief, but could prove a poisoned chalice. Questions are being asked over how to deal with more than one million tons of radiated water that has accumulated at the damaged and decommissioned Fukushima nuclear plant.

If Tokyo decides to dump it in the Pacific, there is bound to be international controversy. On Tuesday, the outgoing environmental minister suggested that a sea dump was a serious option, although the findings of a panel of experts remained to be heard.

Abe also doubled his number of female cabinet members to two with the appointment of former speed skater and lawmaker Seiko Hashimoto as minister in charge of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The bigger picture

The reshuffle, which had long been anticipated, comes at a time when both opportunities and challenges face the island nation.

On one hand, Japan enjoys virtually full employment, to the point where it is importing labor, and is positioned to enjoy the ever-increasing fruits of free trade agreements with both Asia-Pacific nations and the EU.

It is also leveraging an inbound tourism boom and is preparing for the feel-good and high-spending factors of the Rugby World Cup, which starts this month, and next summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

On the other, its export numbers and growth are being relentlessly hammered by the cross-Pacific trade war at a time when wage growth is static and its economy is failing to generate innovative SMEs.

Diplomatically, Tokyo is under major pressure from Washington to sign a rushed free-trade deal, relations with Seoul are at an all-time nadir in the post-war years, and international eyes are on the Fukushima radiated-water controversy.

In the midst of these various dynamics, the long-term political ambition of Abe, who is widely seen as a historical revisionist, looks out of touch. He aims to secure a change to Article 9 of Japan’s US-dictated, Pacifist constitution. The change would allow Japan to possess fully deployable armed forces, so becoming, in Abe’s words, a “normal nation.”

While his coalition has political weight, few observers expect him to be able to gain the numbers needed in a national referendum that is required as a precursor to any constitutional change.

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