TOKYO, Aug 3, (Agencies): Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday dumped arch-conservatives and embraced critical voices in a cabinet revamp he hopes will stem a decline in public support after a series of scandals and missteps.
Political blueblood Abe, in office since late December 2012, has pushed a nationalist agenda alongside a massive policy effort to end years of on-off deflation and rejuvenate the world’s third-largest economy.
But he has seen public support rates plummet in the past few months over an array of political troubles, including allegations of favouritism to a friend in a business deal — which Abe strongly denies.
Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered a drubbing in local Tokyo elections last month, which analysts and newspapers blamed on an increasing “arrogance” on the part of the prime minister and his government.
“I would like to express deep regret and apologise to the public” for creating mistrust due to various scandals, a chastened Abe said at a televised press conference, bowing for several seconds.
Abe, dressed in formal attire after attending a ceremony with his ministers at the Imperial Palace, said he carried out the cabinet changes to restore public confidence in his government.
He reappointed former defence minister Itsunori Onodera after close ally and fellow nationalist Tomomi Inada resigned from the post last week following a scandal at the ministry over the handling of military documents.
He also tapped a pair of lawmakers who have opposed some of his policies.
New foreign minister Taro Kono is the son of a dovish top diplomat known for issuing a landmark 1993 apology as chief cabinet secretary over Japan’s use of “comfort women” — a euphemism for sex slavery — in World War II.
Kono replaced Fumio Kishida, who served as top diplomat since Abe came to power more than four years ago and is often seen as a future prime minister. Kishida moved to a top post in the LDP.
Meanwhile, Seiko Noda, 56, at one time hailed as Japan’s most likely first female prime minister and who in 2015 tried to challenge Abe for the LDP leadership, was named internal affairs minister.
She replaced Sanae Takaichi, another close Abe ally with strongly nationalist views.
Returning defence chief Onodera, 57, held the post for nearly two years until September 2014, and has vowed to restore unity and confidence within the ministry.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman, and Taro Aso, who serves as finance minister and deputy prime minister, were among officials who kept their posts.
Experts said they expect work on Abe’s pet conservative causes, such as strengthening the role of the military, will continue behind the scenes.
The shakeup reflects Abe’s recognition that despite the Liberal Democrats’ overwhelming majority in parliament, his own once seemingly invincible position after more than four years in office may be imperiled.
Sweeping reforms meant to rejuvenate the sluggish economy and cope with Japan’s slow birthrate and aging, shrinking population have made little headway as Abe instead focused on other issues such as revising the pacifist constitution.
In Japan, choice Cabinet positions tend to be distributed among factions that operate almost like political fiefdoms within the ruling party, and this time is no different.
Of 19 Cabinet members, 14 were newly named. But many are party or Cabinet veterans, including Itsunori Onodera, a former defense minister who again was named to that post.