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New Abe Cabinet sets sail in rough seas, wary of members' past blunders

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at a news conference at the prime minister's office on the evening of Oct. 2, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The fourth Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set sail on Oct. 2 with a selection of lawmakers who had awaited Cabinet posts -- including those with a history of gaffes and problem behavior.

Abe reshuffled the Cabinet and senior LDP posts the same day, following his re-election to a third consecutive term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The prime minister retained a number of officials whom he calls the "cornerstones" of his administration in the lineup. He also highlighted intraparty harmony by appointing a member of a faction led by former party Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba to a key Cabinet position. Last month Abe and Ishiba clashed head-on in the party leadership election.

Before the Oct. 2 announcement of the new Cabinet portfolios, it remained unclear who was to take the helm of the Justice Ministry until the last moment, raising speculation that Prime Minister Abe could be arranging a surprise appointment. It was only the morning of Oct. 2 that Takashi Yamashita, former parliamentary vice-minister of justice and a member of the Ishiba faction, emerged as the appointee.

Yamashita told reporters on Oct. 2, "I received a call from the prime minister last night." However, some in the LDP are skeptical about this statement. One mid-ranking party legislator said, "The prime minister would have wanted to appoint someone more colorful," surmising Abe had someone else in mind for the post. In any case, the prime minister allowed the Ishiba faction to maintain a berth within the Cabinet.

At a news conference on Oct. 2, Abe emphasized that he picked the right people for the right positions, citing past precedents of him appointing Yuji Yamamoto and Ken Saito, both from the Ishiba faction, as ministers of agriculture, forestry and fisheries. "I have had talented individuals work hard for my administration," the prime minister noted.

With regard to observations that Abe "head-hunted" a junior legislator from the Ishiba faction, Ishiba negated such views, saying, "That's groundless speculation. It's not like the prime minister was going to drive a wedge into or shake up my faction," and hailed Yamashita's entry into the Cabinet.

Prime Minister Abe rewarded five intraparty factions for their support for him in the party presidential election, including the faction led by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, to which Abe belongs. The No. 2 faction led by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso saw four members cruising into the new Cabinet, the largest figure among the five factions. The faction led by party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai also had three members making it into the new Cabinet, two more than in the previous Cabinet reshuffle.

There were about 80 legislators still on the waiting list for Cabinet posts within the LDP prior to the Oct. 2 reshuffle. Of them, the prime minister picked up 12 to include in the new Cabinet roster.

Some in the LDP, however, have voiced concerns over the new Cabinet lineup as it includes figures known for controversial remarks and behavior in the past. "I'm worried about possible gaffes (by new Cabinet members). The Cabinet is full of defects that opposition parties would want to pick on," said one party member. A figure close to the government, meanwhile, asked, "I wonder if the administration can survive the upcoming extraordinary session of the Diet."

New Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada previously resigned as state minister of education in 2004, after it emerged that his academic record as a master's degree holder from an American university was inaccurate. In 2015, he called for a review of the Japanese government's position on the Nanjing Massacre by the Imperial Japanese Army during an LDP meeting.

Furthermore, newly appointed Olympic and Paralympic minister Yoshitaka Sakurada came under fire in 2013 when he was state minister of education for stating that radioactively contaminated waste generated from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disaster "should be placed in Fukushima." And in 2016, he retracted a comment on so-called "comfort women" who were forced to work at wartime brothels for the Japanese military. He had commented that "comfort women were prostitutes by profession until the Anti-Prostitution Act went into force. It was a business."

Social Democratic Party leader Seiji Mataichi lambasted Abe's appointment of Sakurada as minister for the 2020 Tokyo Games during a news conference on Oct. 2, asking, "Is someone who sparked controversy over the comfort women issue suited to serve as minister for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, which are festivals of peace?"

Another point of concern is that there is only one female member in the new Abe Cabinet. Satsuki Katayama, who was appointed as minister in charge of regional revitalization, candidly expressed her bewilderment during a press meeting on the evening of Oct. 2. "I was surprised when I found that I was the only woman in the Cabinet when I met its new members," she told reporters.

At a media conference, Prime Minister Abe defended the predominantly male Cabinet in response to a question by a foreign media reporter, saying, "Japan is at the start of a society where women can shine. Women will be trained to enter the Cabinet from now on."

(Japanese original by Keiko Takahashi and Hiroshi Odanaka, Political News Department)

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