Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has retained six key ministers in his first Cabinet reshuffle since returning to power in December 2012, signalling continuity in policy.
He also named five women to his new Cabinet, equalling the record number first set in 2001 by then Premier Junichiro Koizumi.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Mr Abe's right-hand man, kept his post. So did Finance Minister Taro Aso, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Economic Policy Minister Akira Amari, Land and Transport Minister Akihiro Ota and Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura.
Explaining the reason for the reshuffle, Mr Abe told a press conference yesterday: "I want to make a fresh start in respect of all policies, implementing them boldly and forcefully."
But analysts say the reshuffle's main aim was to minimise challenges to Mr Abe's leadership when his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) picks a new president in September next year.
The Prime Minister's closest rival is widely seen as Mr Shigeru Ishiba, who lost to Mr Abe in the 2012 party election.
Mr Ishiba, 57, earlier caused a stir when he indicated his wish to remain LDP secretary-general and reportedly declined Mr Abe's offer of a Cabinet post requiring him to steer Japan's security legislation through Parliament.
Mr Ishiba, a former defence minister, said his approach to creating a new defence framework differed from that of Mr Abe, who used a Cabinet decision to reinterpret a constitutional clause to give Japan the right to collective self-defence.
Yesterday, he found himself co-opted into the Cabinet and given the new post of Regional Revitalisation Minister in charge of bringing Japan's lacklustre regional economies back to life.
"As a member of the Cabinet, it will be harder for Mr Ishiba to run against Mr Abe next year because he cannot easily criticise the Prime Minister's policies," said veteran political watcher Shiro Tazaki.
Meanwhile, the appointment of five women brings the share of females in the 18-member Cabinet to 28 per cent, close enough to the 30 per cent target that Mr Abe has been touting for women in managerial positions in all fields.
A major surprise was the choice of Ms Yuko Obuchi, the younger of two daughters of the late prime minister Keizo Obuchi, to helm the economy, trade and industry ministry.
The 40-year-old is the youngest member of the Cabinet and a mother of two who worked in television before turning to politics.
She was minister in charge of gender equality issues and tackling Japan's declining birthrate from 2008 to 2009.
Ms Obuchi's new portfolio is a tough one that includes guarding Japan's interests in the difficult US-led Trans Pacific Partnership regional trade talks and overcoming public opposition to restarting the country's idled nuclear plants.
Yesterday, Mr Abe also appointed veteran LDP politicians friendly to China to the party's two highest positions, indicating his desire to improve fraught diplomatic ties with Beijing.
Outgoing Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, 69, is now LDP secretary-general while former trade minister Toshihiro Nikai, 75, is the new general council chairman.
Although Mr Tanigaki is 10 years older than Mr Abe, he may still harbour ambitions of becoming prime minister by recapturing the party presidency, said Mr Tazaki, the political watcher.
Mr Tanigaki was LDP chief from 2009 to 2012 when the party was in opposition.
"As secretary-general, it will not be easy for Mr Tanigaki to challenge Mr Abe. But if Mr Abe's economic policies fail, Mr Tanigaki may have another shot at the presidency," said Mr Tazaki.
This article was first published on September 04, 2014.
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