TOKYO — A deeply contrite Japanese prime minister, tainted by political scandals and plummeting in the polls, overhauled his cabinet Thursday in an attempt to stave off challenges to his leadership.
By appointing a lineup of experienced political veterans from across various factions in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Shinzo Abe tried both to restore stability to his government and to show the Japanese people he was working to put right the recent problems, analysts said.
“I reshuffled my cabinet with a determination to go back to the high point we occupied when we regained control of the government five years ago,” Abe said at a news conference Thursday night, during which he did a long, low bow of contrition and voiced his “deep remorse” for losing the public’s trust.
Abe, who had been enjoying support ratings around 60 percent at the beginning of this year and looked set to retain the leadership of the LDP through to 2021, has suffered several blows this year that saw his poll numbers tumble into the 20s.
He has become embroiled in two cronyism scandals centered around educational institutions, and his defense minister has been accused of a coverup that would — perhaps inadvertently — help Abe pursue his goal of revising the American-written, postwar constitution.
The prime minister seemed to suggest that this cherished political goal, which would have enabled him to strengthen the Japanese military, was being put on the back burner.
“Our top priority is the revitalization of the economy,” Abe said in the news conference.
In the reshuffle, the prime minister changed 14 of the 19 cabinet positions.
Notably, he moved his foreign minister of the last five years and potential rival, Fumio Kishida, into the No. 3 position in the LDP, putting him in charge of the party’s Policy Research Council.
The move was apparently designed to keep Kishida’s supporters happy and stop them from trying to oust Abe in LDP leadership elections next year. Abe also promoted another rival for the leadership, Seiko Noda, making her internal affairs minister.
As the new foreign minister, Abe appointed Taro Kono, who studied at Georgetown University in the early 1980s and worked on Capitol Hill for Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, who was a Democratic congressman at the time. Among the archconservatives running the LDP, the 54-year-old Kono is considered something of a moderate.
His father, Yohei Kono, led the study that resulted in the 1993 Kono Statement, in which Japan offered its “sincere apologies and remorse” to the women in Korea and China who had been used as sex slaves by the Japanese army during World War II.
One of Kono’s first tasks will be to travel to the Asean Regional Forum in Manila next week, where North Korea will be one of the top agenda items. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will also be attending, and the two are certain to meet.
Abe put two trusted political veterans into the portfolios at the center of his current woes: education and defense.
Itsunori Onodera will return to the post of defense minister, which he held for almost two years when Abe returned to the premiership at the end of 2012, after the resignation last week of the gaffe-prone Tomomi Inada, once viewed as Abe’s protege.
Inada had been accused of hiding records of the Self-Defense Forces’ controversial peacekeeping activities in South Sudan last year, when the security situation there was rapidly worsening. If the logs had been made public, this could have sapped the momentum from Abe’s plan to allow the SDF, as the Japanese military is known, to cast off some of its postwar limitations.
Onodera represented a safe choice after Inada, said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“This makes complete sense,” said Smith. “Abe needs someone who knows what he’s doing because Japan is about to write a new five-year plan and will upgrade its missile defenses. Onodera has serious policy chops and is well-known in Washington.”
And for education, Abe installed Yoshimasa Hayashi, a solid technocrat who had previously served as minister of defense and agriculture, and has a squeaky clean reputation. That was needed after the controversies involving the two schools, which Abe was accused of indirectly arranging favors for.
But it’s not clear that the changes will put an end to Abe’s problems, Smith said.
“We’ll have to wait and see how the public responds,” she said, noting that the problem was with one person, not the party as a whole. “The polling data showed that the public had lost trust in Abe himself.”
The one thing the LDP has going for it: the main opposition Democratic Party is in even worse shape, with its latest leader — a woman who was supposed to become the new face of the beleaguered party — also standing down last week.