Japan PM to reshuffle Cabinet, LDP leadership as public support slips

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will reshuffle his Cabinet and ruling party executives on Wednesday, seeking to stem a decline in public support and stay clear of dubious ties with a religious group under the spotlight following the killing of former premier Shinzo Abe.

Kishida hopes the personnel changes will pave the way for a long-term, stable administration to tackle what he has described as "the biggest challenges of the postwar era," ranging from COVID-19 and inflation to Russia's war in Ukraine and heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

The prime minister will retain his right-hand man, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki, senior administration sources said.

Japan is facing growing threats from China, North Korea and Russia, and downside economic risks from surging prices and COVID-19 cases.

Kishida has decided to ask former Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada to take the defense portfolio again, as Japan seeks to reinforce its defense posture with increased spending.

Hamada, who was defense minister between 2008 and 2009, will replace Nobuo Kishi, the younger brother of Abe who was fatally shot during a campaign speech in July. The assailant has said he held a grudge against the Unification Church, now formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, and believed the former premier had connections with the group, according to investigators.

While Kishida is apparently replacing Kishi due to his poor health, Kishi has admitted that he received help from the religious group in past elections.

Followers of the church have been convicted in Japan in connection with money illegally obtained from people through the use of threats, including the citing of "ancestral karma."

Kishida's new Cabinet will likely include LDP policy chief Sanae Takaichi, known for her hawkish security views that resonated with Abe, as economic security minister. The party's outspoken PR chief Taro Kono will be named digitization minister, the sources said.

In last year's LDP presidential race, Kishida defeated Takaichi and Kono, then seen as the favorite among the public to become prime minister.

From the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, Tetsuo Saito will continue to serve as land minister.

Kishida's personnel choices reflect his desire to retain the support of conservative members who belong to the largest LDP faction that had been led by Abe, a necessity to ensure the longevity of his tenure as party leader and therefore prime minister.

The shocking assassination of Abe is still reverberating within the party, even after the ruling coalition secured a sweeping victory in the House of Councillors election on July 10.

Kishida has decided to entrust industry minister Koichi Hagiuda with the key post of LDP policy chief, and to give the industry minister job to Yasutoshi Nishimura, a former economic revitalization minister who was in charge of the government's COVID-19 response. Both are members of the powerful faction.

The roster of LDP executives is being closely watched for any indications of change in Kishida's approach to intraparty power dynamics. Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi and Vice President Taro Aso will retain their posts, the sources said. Motegi and Aso lead the second- and third-largest intraparty factions, respectively.

Hiroshi Moriyama, who supported former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga with LDP heavyweight Toshihiro Nikai, will likely be put in charge of the election strategy committee, the sources said.

No national elections are expected for the next three years, unless the powerful House of Representatives is dissolved.

But the selection of Moriyama, known for his coordination skills gained as Diet affairs chief under Abe and Suga, means Kishida is also taking heed of members who have retreated to the sidelines and distanced themselves from the current government, in an apparent effort to keep the party united.

Kishida is expected to hold a press conference later in the day after the revamp of LDP executives and Cabinet members.

Slipping public support is raising the alarm for Kishida with voters in recent media polls asking for clarity over the relationship between the Unification Church and the LDP as well as an explanation for why a state funeral on Sept. 27 for Abe is necessary.

Abe's assailant, Tetsuya Yamagami, has told investigators that his mother's donations to the religious group had ruined his family's finances. This, along with revelations linking the group and some politicians, has led to public scrutiny.

To ease public concern, Kishida has said all members of the new Cabinet and LDP executive lineup will check and review any links to the Unification Church.

Kishida had enjoyed relatively strong public support since becoming prime minister last October. His handling of government contrasts with his predecessors, who preferred a top-down approach led by the Prime Minister's Office.

For the past 10 months, Kishida has been placing priority on the government's COVID-19 response and steps to fight accelerating inflation that he has blamed largely on Russia's war in Ukraine.

Key events after the personnel changes include work to draw up a budget for the next fiscal year from April, the state funeral for Abe, and a review of national security strategy and defense policy documents.

© Kyodo News