Japan's Cabinet reshuffle eyed to tighten up party to pursue major policies

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers a policy speech at the beginning of the ordinary Diet session of this year at National Diet in Tokyo on January 24, 2014.

JAPAN - With a reshuffle of his Cabinet and the Liberal Democratic Party executive lineup likely to take place this summer, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apparently aims to tighten his grip on the administration and boost his leadership, observers said.

As there are a number of key issues to be tackled toward the end of this year, such as a possible consumption tax hike to 10 per cent, Abe likely wants to boost his leadership by renewing Cabinet and party member lineups. The planned reshuffle will be the first for the prime minister since the launch of his current administration in December 2012.

According to opinion surveys conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun, the Cabinet approval rate shortly after the launch of the current Abe administration was 65 per cent, and this month it remains high at 60 per cent. Given the stable result, some government and party officials share the view that drastic changes should not be made to the current Cabinet lineup.

However, Seiichi Eto, a special adviser to the prime minister, was forced to withdraw his criticism of the US government for releasing a statement through its embassy in Japan that expressed disapproval of Abe's visit to Yasukuni Shrine. Some LDP members voiced concerns that the administration has started to slacken.

Given that the current Cabinet has never been reshuffled and that the Prime Minister's Office has had more power in policy affairs than the LDP, there is discontent with the administration among a number of LDP members, especially members of the party's General Council. A veteran lawmaker said, "Abe should relieve frustration within the party by reshuffling the Cabinet."

Abe will have to make a decision on adjusting the consumption tax rate to 10 per cent as well as the introduction of lower tax rates for some items at the end of the year. Some LDP members insist the consumption tax should be raised as scheduled. But Abe remains cautious, saying: "If the tax hike stops the current recovery trend, there is no point in raising the tax. Without economic growth, fiscal reconstruction cannot be realised, either."

The Abe administration also faces many challenges this coming summer onward concerning diplomatic and defence policies. Abe intends to obtain Cabinet approval over the revision of constitutional interpretations to allow the nation to exercise the right to collective self-defence around summer, with plans to submit bills to revise relevant laws including the Self-Defence Forces Law to an extraordinary Diet session in autumn. Maintaining public support will be essential, as he also plans to revise guidelines for Japan-US defence cooperation by the end of the year.