It's been a year of setbacks for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Since the elections of last September, he has lost four cabinet ministers to political scandals; control of the upper house of parliament; and 40 approval rating percentage points. Now, in an attempt to right his ailing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and prepare for a tumultuous fall Diet session, Abe has reshuffled his cabinet, bringing in a host of veteran politicians to regain voter confidence.
The new lineup is in sharp contrast to the so-called "buddy cabinet" of almost a year ago, made up of Abe's friends and largely first-time ministers. With key positions such as the cabinet speaker and foreign affairs minister now filled by LDP veterans who control powerful factions within the party, Abe's new cabinet is more reminiscent of days when appointments were handed out to political factions to curry favor and support and is a sign that the embattled Prime Minister now needs all the help he can get.
As part of the shuffle, Abe's close ally, former foreign minister Taro Aso, now becomes party secretary general; his place is taken by legislator Nobutaka Machimura, the head of the LDP's biggest faction. Civilian appointee Hiroya Masuda, a former prefectural governor and regional reformer, becomes Abe's interior minister in charge of addressing the concerns rural voters left out of Japan's urban-centered economic recovery. Popular LDP member of parliament Yoichi Masuzoe, a vocal critic of Abe's, will become minister of health, labor and welfare. It's an important but uncoveted position: Masuzoe must untangle the mishandling of as many as 50 million pension accounts, a scandal that helped cost the LDP control of the upper house.
Abe was once hailed as the third most popular Prime Minister in postwar Japan, but his recent missteps and those of his advisers have precipitated a rapid fall from grace. He stood behind a health minister who called women "baby making machines," a defense minister who remarked that the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb "couldn't be helped" and an agricultural minister whose suspected involvement in financial scandals led him to commit suicide. In making his goal of amending Japan's pacifist constitution to allow a more robust foreign policy the cornerstone of the LDP's July election campaign, Abe ignored voter concerns over bread-and-butter issues at his peril. To placate the calls for his own resignation after the historic loss that followed, Abe sacked his replacement agricultural minister over yet another financial scandal and promised a cabinet reshuffle, only to have his new defense minister resign after a conflict over ministry appointments.
After the announcement of his new cabinet Monday, a somber Abe appeared before reporters Monday night to show that he too was a changed man. The Prime Minister who swept into office carrying the reform torch of his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi described the changes as "unfortunate" and painful, but necessary. Moreover, during the 20-minute press conference, he wholly ignored the subject of constitutional amendment, and mentioned his other favorite subject, North Korean abductions, only after a reporter's prompting. "I believe the new cabinet has appropriate people placed in appropriate places," he told reporters. Jun Iio, a political science professor at Tokyo's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, agrees, but says it will take more than that to restore Abe's luster: "Credibility can't be gained by a mere personnel change."