Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has just announced the makeup of his new cabinet. Faced with a range of tough issues and falling approval ratings, the new line-up indicates that the Prime Minister is preparing for a hard period of legislating before next year's party elections, when Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) prime ministers can be unseated by MPs and party members.
Abe has decided to do something a little different with this reshuffle.
Traditionally an opportunity to keep party factions onside by rewarding them with a share of cabinet positions, this reshuffle instead took several prestigious positions off the table. Taro Aso, Fumio Kishida, Akira Amari and Yoshihida Suga are the most prominent members of Abe's leadership team to be retained. By ensuring important positions such as Chief Cabinet Secretary and Minister of Finance (Yoshihida Suga and Taro Aso respectively) are unchanged, Abe has chosen to prioritise consistency and steadiness in pushing his ambitious legislative agenda.
Nevertheless, implementation of that agenda remains a challenge. With this in mind, the Prime Minister has bought on a mixed group of established operators and rising stars within the LDP to help spearhead legislation.
Perhaps highlighting concerns over potential resistance from the agricultural sector to economic and trade efforts, Abe has appointed former Minister for Agriculture Shigeru Ishiba as Minister of Regional Economic Revitalisation and Koya Nishikawa, the leader of the LDP agricultural caucus and a key interlocutor during Australia-Japan FTA negotiations, as Minister of Agriculture. Ishiba and Nishikawa are seasoned, firm hands, and by putting them in charge, the Prime Minister seems intent on heading off any disruption in this oft sensitive area.
In other areas, Abe seems to have grasped the need for energy, appointing Yuko Obuchi as Minister of the Economy, Trade and Industry. Among the most powerful positions in the Japanese government, Ms Obuchi's rise to this post holds both symbolic and political importance. Besides being an example of the Prime Minister's efforts to include more women in the economy and in positions of leadership, the appointment also signifies faith that Obuchi has the ability, and the gumption, to bend the disparate economics-related parts of the Japanese bureaucracy into alignment with the Government's agenda.
What of relations abroad?
The new cabinet is geared towards a tough fight on the home front. The cabinet retains a good mix of stable leadership, experience and drive that will help against the inevitable resistance to reform across the Japanese domestic landscape. Unfortunately, this may come at the expense of relations with neighbours.
The new cabinet includes individuals noted for some controversial views. A principal example is the new Minister of Defence and Defence Legislation, Akinori Eto. As a former Vice-Minister for Defence and member of the Diet committee on National Security, Eto is an ideal candidate to drive through legislation on that front. However, his support for the right of Diet members to visit the Yasukuni Shrine will do little to allay suspicion or endear Japan to either China or South Korea.