prime minister abe's cabinet reshuffle is more than a mere smokescreen to look proactive
prime minister abe still has not loosed the third arrow that investors are waiting for so avidly. so for now, he just shot another one first: the cabinet reshuffle, the first in almost two years.
this arrow definitely has hit the mark with respect to voters already – the support rate for his cabinet, lately diminishing fast, is back at 60%, as a september 3 survey by the nikkei newspaper and tv tokyo found. the main reason cited for this surge in voter support is that he heaved a record number of women – which still means only a meagre six – into cabinet level or top party positions (five female cabinet members and inada tomomi as head of the ldp policy research council).
the question, however, whether this arrow has also hit the mark with respect to abe's policy goals of breathing back life into japan's lacklustre economy is much more difficult to answer. some observers, such as in the diplomat's september 2 issue, shrug off the revamp as simply putting up a few new poster boys (and gals) for basically the same old ideology. but this misses the subtle point prime minister abe is making about his political priorities for the remainder of his term with this reshuffle. it does amount to more than a mere smokescreen to distract from abe's failure to deliver on his promises of far-reaching reforms.
a delicate balance
despite the complex politicking required by the reshuffling to satisfy all of the ldp's factional, gender, and policy groups, the new cabinet is striking a new balance between economic reformers and political conservatives. that gives a first glimpse into prime minister abe's direction for the second half of his term. in short both, the side of the economic reform camp and the side of the political conservatives have been strengthened, with the lines drawn clearer, although abe has been given the smallest of hints that the economy will be first.
abe is backing the camp of the economic reformers, removing one of their main opponents in the cabinet (former labour minister tamura norihisa), while strengthening their ranks: shiozaki yasuhisa, the harvard kennedy school graduate and proponent of a more proactive gpif, japan's vast public pension fund, will be new labour minister; the young new minister for the economy, obuchi yuko, will strengthen abe's credentials as a game changer; arimura haruko, the former mcdonald's employee and u.s. university graduate will boost abe's support among women (already up by 16% since the reshuffle, closing the gap to male support rates), taking charge of increasing the participation of women in the labour force.
the camp of political conservatives and defence hawks got their share of posts, too. yasukuni-regular takaichi sanae is now minister for internal affairs; defence hawk eto akinori assumed the post of defence minister and will be in charge of handling the delicate issue of expanding the interpretation of the constitution to allow for collective defence; yamatani eriko, the yasukuni advocate and sex education opponent, will be in charge of abe's nationalist pet project, the abduction issue (not that the goal would be wrong; just their pr and media circus is); matsushima midori, known for her flexible stance on the inalienability of human rights, will be justice minister; and ishiba shigeru, who was too conservative in defence matters even for abe's cabinet, will handle regional revitalisation.
abe underlines his commitment to economic reform as well as to a stronger nationalist edge to the cabinet - but which takes precedence?
abe's message to investors is clear: he is committed to the idea of structural reform and does not hesitate to remove the obstacles in his way. and with this reshuffle, the opposition to political reform in the highest echelons of policy-making has been weakened significantly. his political message, on the other hand, is less clear. certainly, he clarified his cabinet's outlook as conservative, but mixed messages remain: tanigaki sadakazu, a relatively pro-china (and for the ldp, dovish) politician, was appointed as the ldp's number two and moved into a position to balance out the cabinet's more hawkish profile.
in short, the great ambiguity that has been overshadowing his premiership since december 2012, however, will remain: what comes first, nationalism or economic reform? as to this question, the answer remains unclear, although for now, abe has given a tiny push to the latter.
(image credit: wikimedia commons, peacefulmoments)