Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.09.08

It's Political Longevity, Stupid

JBpress on September 5, 2014

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finally reshuffled his cabinet on September 3. No Japanese cabinet since 1945 has lasted for more than 600 days without changing at least one of its ministerial members. Although opposition party leaders harshly criticize the move, the reshuffle is welcomed in business circles. The silent majority of Japanese, however, seem to be somewhere in between.

Before the appointment of 12 new ministers in the 18-member cabinet, there were both positive and negative views, especially in foreign media, on Abe's foreign policy. There was even speculation on the "possibility that the cabinet's cohesion may unravel and that right-wingers, if appointed, might push him into even greater dispute with the country's neighbours."

After the reshuffle, however, a more hopeful analysis was published, suggesting that, "His decision to appoint Sadakazu Tanigaki as LDP's secretary general, and veteran MP Toshihiro Nikai as his deputy, drew a moderately optimistic response from Beijing and raised hopes that the two neighbours could improve ties after two years of friction over ownership of the Senkaku islands."

The silent majority of Japanese find the above two views, coincidentally both British, to both be wrong. Shinzo Abe did neither of the above. He did not appoint the speculated "right-wingers" in his cabinet. Similarly, he did not appoint Tanigaki and Nikai because they are "considered friendly towards Beijing," and is not signaling "a rare attempt to mend fences with China."

Those views are wrong precisely because the purpose of the latest cabinet reshuffle is not about foreign policy but about Abe's political longevity. He retained the most important six of the original 18 ministers, despite growing frustration among the so-called "ministers-in-waiting" who have been yearning for a prestigious cabinet post for years.

Abe appointed five women as ministers, tying the Koizumi administration's record for largest-ever number of female cabinet members. Abe also appointed his main political rival, former LDP secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba, as senior minister in charge of reviving regional economies, a move to reduce Ishiba's political clout in the next LDP presidential election next year.

In his post-reshuffle press conference, Abe emphasized three major objectives in replacing 12 ministers in the cabinet as well as several party posts in the ruling LDP (including three top positions). They are, "To create energetic and prosperous local communities," "To create a society where women shine" and "To create a cabinet of implementation and realization."

Abe spent most of his time in the press conference not on foreign affairs but on the recovery and health of local economies; this is because he knows his Abenomics has not fully reached local towns and districts in the countryside. He also knows that a tough political decision must be made by December over whether to raise the consumption tax to 10 percent in October 2015 as scheduled.

Although he still enjoys an approval rating around 50%, a surprisingly high level of popularity among voters 20 months since the inception of his cabinet, Abe is fully aware that a prime minister's popularity tends to quickly fall after a cabinet reshuffle because he or she will inevitably alienate most of the 70-some desperate candidates inside the LDP for a cabinet post.

Some fear potential gaffes by a new minister, but the silent majority of Japanese disagree because they know that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who remains in the cabinet, effectively bans ministers from discussing sensitive "history issues" in public. Cabinet members have only repeated the official government line and the new cabinet will most likely follow this tradition.

In a nut shell, Shinzo Abe is committed to a stable economic recovery reaching every town and district in Japan and is determined to continue his Abenomics in the years to come. In order to do so, he knows that he has to stay in power as long as possible. That was the only reason Abe reshuffled his cabinet.

Make no mistake. For Abe, his foreign policy agenda is important but not the first priority. The silent majority of Japanese know this and that is the reason why they seem to cautiously but rigidly support the Abe administration. That is why they prudently support Abe's political longevity while remaining concerned about potential diplomatic friction with the Chinese or Koreans.