Abe’s 2018 Cabinet Reshuffle, Explained

Diet of Japan

Newly re-elected LDP leader Shinzo Abe reshuffles his cabinet – what do the new appointments say about the direction of Japan’s government?

Today, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe followed up his victory in the Liberal Democratic Party leadership election with a cabinet reshuffle.  His last reshuffle occurred just over a year ago under far different circumstances, when he changed up his cabinet to recover from a steep dive in public opinion following several prominent scandals. This time, coming off his strong victory over opponent Shigeru Ishiba in the LDP election, Abe had a freer hand – able to use the cabinet reshuffle to repay debts, punish challengers, and build-up potential successors. The moves offer insights into Abe’s political capital, his potential legislative agenda, and who gained ground in posturing for post-Abe leadership.

The senior cabinet and party leadership postings have been quite evenly distributed across the LDP’s factions. Abe did not shy away from keeping his loyalists close, but also distributed key postings across his most important factional supporters—Tarō Asō, Fumio Kishida, and Toshihiro Nikai – and offered a significant olive branch to Ishiba’s supporters by handing his faction a key appointment in the Ministry of Justice. This is a play at longevity more than posturing for an aggressive legislative agenda, as the upcoming political calendar is full of burdens Abe would rather distribute across the party. Though more analysis is required once State and Vice-Minister postings are announced, the senior appointments suggest that Abe is shoring up control of the party before advancing personal agenda items in the Diet.

Setting for this Reshuffle

Last August’s reshuffle saw Abe trying to stabilize his administration after a series of scandals. Instead of stacking the deck with members from his home Hosoda faction and other ideological allies, Abe focused on bringing in veteran lawmakers, many of whom served on earlier cabinets. This helped Abe to weather the political storm and contributed to the stabilization of his public approval above the fortieth percentile by the point that he entered the LDP presidential election. This time, Abe is coming off a strong victory in the LDP presidential election. With a total of 23 top-tier positions up for consideration, as well as the state/vice minister postings that will be announced later, how Abe will repay the debts from his leadership election, and whether he would play it safe again or install a loyalist cabinet to support an aggressive legislative agenda, have been key questions in the media over the past week.

The Result
The following table shows the major postings announced today:

Abe Cabinet, 2018

Prime MinisterABE ShinzoHosoda
Chief Cabinet SecretarySUGA YoshihideIndependent
Minister of FinanceASO TaroAso
Minister for Foreign AffairsKONO TaroAso
Minister of DefenceIWAYA TakeshiAso
Minister of Internal Affairs and CommunicationsISHIDA MasatoshiIndependent
Minister of Economy, Trade and IndustrySEKO HiroshigeHosoda
Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and TourismISHII KeiichiKomeito
Minister of JusticeYAMASHITA TakeshiIshiba
Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and ForestryYOSHIKAWA TakamoriNikai
Minister of Health, Labor & WelfareNEMOTO TakumiKishida
Minister of EducationSHIBAYAMA MasahikoHosoda
Minister of EnvironmentHARADA YoshiakiAso
Minister of Economic Vitalization / TPPMOTEGI ToshimistsuNukaga
Minister for Revitalizing Regional EconomiesKATAYAMA SatsukiNikai
Minister of Science & TechnologyHIRAI TakuyaKishida
Chairman of the National Public Safety CommissionYAMAMOTO JyunzoHosoda
Minister for ReconstructionWATANABE ToshimichiTakeshita
Minister for 2020 OlympicsSAKURADA YoshitakaNikai
Minister for Okinawa / Northern TerritoriesMIYAKOSHI MitsuhiroKishida
LDP Secretary GeneralNIKAI ToshihiroNikai
LDP Policy Research Council ChairpersonKISHIDA FumioKishida
LDP General Affairs Council ChairpersonKATO KatsunobuTakeshita
LDP Election Strategy Committee ChairpersonAMARI AkiraIndependent

While plenty of moves happened during this cabinet reshuffle, some of the biggest names stayed put. As expected, Deputy Prime Minister/Finance Minister Tarō Asō remained in his post, as did Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. Interestingly, Tarō Kōno remained as Foreign Minister.  He has done well in the position, in many ways overshadowing his predecessor, Fumio Kishida.  Keeping this ministership also helps him stay in the public eye and build popularity ahead of a potential run for post-Abe leadership.

Long-time Abe-ally Toshimitsu Motegi also kept his streak of leadership postings intact.  He will stay on as the Economic Revitalization minister where he will continue negotiations with the United States and the TPP nations.  Motegi is a member of the Takeshita faction but was instrumental in splitting factional voting in the LDP election, with Wataru Takeshita and Upper House faction members voting for Ishiba, and Motegi and Lower House members voting for Abe.  Motegi’s streak of retaining senior party or cabinet postings since 2012 remains unbroken.

Meanwhile, LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai’s retention of his post is a big reward for his loyalty, as it keeps him as the de facto number two in party leadership despite his relatively small number of supporters.

Fumio Kishida also stayed put and retained the Policy Research Council chair. It will be important to see how many posts his faction receives in the state/vice-minister levels, but failure to gain concessions for himself is a major blow. Kishida, who is expected to posture for post-Abe leadership, is holding a position previously occupied by mid-career Abe allies like Sanae Takaichi and Tomomi Inada. It suggests that Kishida’s decision to play it safe and back Abe in the election may come back to haunt him.

Aside from those holdovers, of the twenty-three top-tier posts up for grabs, there were fifteen moves.  With them, Abe focused on repaying debts, rewarding allies, and punishing enemies.  Among the several changes, some of the more notable moves are detailed below:

  • Election Strategy Committee Chairperson: Akira Amari replaces Ryū Shionoya.

The third member of the “three A’s” (Abe, Asō, and Amari) returned to the Cabinet after having to resign his post in January 2016 due to a money scandal.  As is standard practice for most LDP lawmakers who falter due to scandal, Amari stepped out of the limelight and bided his time until there was enough political capital to make a return.  In this case, the LDP presidential election offered him a chance to serve as Abe’s campaign manager, opening the door to his return to a prominent leadership position.  Amari is a seasoned politician who is among the closest to Prime Minister Abe.

  • General Affairs Committee Chairperson: Katsunobu Katō replaces Wataru Takeshita

The fact that Abe appointed ideological ally Katsunobu Katō to another senior posting is not as interesting as the fact that Katō replaces his own faction head as the General Affairs Committee Chairperson.  Like Toshimitsu Motegi, Katō was among the members of Wataru Takeshita’s faction who defected to support Abe instead of Ishiba in the LDP election, and this posting is certain to widen the fissure in the LDP’s third largest faction.  Meanwhile, Katō extends his senior posting streak from 2015, helping to posture him as a future LDP heavyweight.

  • Defense Minister: Takeshi Iwaya replaces Itsunori Onodera

This reshuffle saw the exit of Itsunori Onodera, who returned to the Defense Minister post to provide stability after Tomomi Inada resigned due to the South Sudan peacekeeping logs scandal.  The strong election victory allowed Abe to install someone more closely aligned with his policy agenda.  If Abe intends to make a push for constitutional revision, he picked a good advocate in Takeshi Iwaya. Iwaya has long been involved in LDP defense committees, played a role in negotiating the 2014 constitutional reinterpretation with the Komeitō, and was front and center in the Lower House committee responsible for deliberating the 2015 Peace and Security Legislation. He has limited Ministry of Defense experience (four months as a Parliamentary Vice-Minister in the Mori Cabinet, 2001), but he is a veteran of Diet politics centered on Japanese security.

  • Minister of Internal Affairs and Communication: Masatoshi Ishida replaces Seiko Noda

In another blow to Abe’s would-be challengers, Seiko Noda lost her cabinet billet to Masatoshi Ishida.  Noda announced her intent to run against Abe but failed to muster the twenty nominations necessary to achieve formal candidacy.  That, when coupled with the revelation that she received leaked information regarding Asahi Shimbun’s request for information disclosure, was enough to see her replaced.  Like Noda, Ishida does not maintain any factional ties, but unlike Noda, he is not known for making waves in the political world.

  • Minister of Education: Masahiko Shibayama replaces Yoshimasa Hayashi

Abe has aimed to keep a steady hand on education policy, appointing members of his home faction to the Minister of Education post in every cabinet except the last reshuffle.  Veteran cabinet minister Yoshimasa Hayashi was brought in last year to stabilize the situation at the Ministry of Education after a series of scandals threatened the Abe administration.  With his victory in the LDP election, Abe was able to return the post to a member of his home Hosoda faction, Masahiko Shibayama.

  • Minister of Justice: Takashi Yamashita replaces Yoko Kamikawa

In a last-minute revelation which no media had picked up on prior to the announcement, Takashi Yamashita was named to replace Yoko Kamikawa.  This is a notable concession to Shigeru Ishiba. It appeared that the Ishiba faction would be shut out from the cabinet altogether, but they instead gained leadership of an entire ministry.  It is also significant since Yamashita is a three-term politician, and the LDP’s standard for such appointments is typically six terms.

Part II of this series will appear later in the week, offering broader analysis of the cabinet reshuffle, incorporating all state minister and vice-ministerial appointments.

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Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special advisor for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield Fellow.

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