Abe's rejig cabinet to focus on economy but tired rhetoric draws flak

Updated: 2015-10-07 20:29


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TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe handed out portfolios to nine first time ministers but retained his key allies in a cabinet reshuffle Wednesday purportedly aimed at refocusing the government's efforts on economic revival while clambering to restore some of the public's faith that plummeted following the ruling camp's forced passage of security legislation ahead of upper house elections next year.

Political watchers said following the announcement of the new lineup that the changes were largely in line with expectations with one or two new additions added to the mix in a bid to possibly curry favor from a skeptical public, still irate at the cabinet's unilateral decision to reinterpret a key clause of Japan's war-renouncing Constitution that paved the way for Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition to steamroll publicly denounced war bills through parliament.

"This is no real great shake up, and (prime minister) Abe has kept his key allies close at hand so upcoming decisions regarding his security agenda and potential further constitutional reforms can be made and ratified retroactively as we've seen in the past, but in the short term, ostensibly, the government's focus has been redirected back to the economy,"Asian affairs commentator Kaoru Imori told Xinhua.

Recent economic indicators point to a further contraction in the next quarter, Imori continued, so for Abe to get the public back onside following the melodrama surrounding his military push, he needs to be seen once again to be making a concerted effort to get the economy back on track as essentially his revolutionary" Abenomics"economic policies have flopped as has the public's faith in his government, and he needs his latest policies to be brought to quantifiable fruition before the end of this fiscal year.

Imori went on to explain that retaining the services of the cabinet's most important players and Abe's closest allies in the form of his right-hand man Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Finance Minister Taro Aso, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, alongside his key executives, including Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki, vice President Masahiko Komura and party policy chief Tomomi Inada, meant that overall party hegemony could be maintained, with the newcomers bringing a fresh economic impetus to the table ahead of upper house elections next year.

With Abe's attempt to boost his popularity and bring politics in Japan into the 21st Century by including five women in his cabinet in a wholesale makeover in 2014 going monumentally awry, as two of them were quickly booted out under a cloud due to scandals, he tapped former television presenter Tamayo Marukawa, 44, to be the new environment minister.

But her appointment has seen the number of women in the cabinet drop to three undermining Abe's pledge to raise the profile of women in Japan by leaning on companies to promote more females to positions of power and make better provisions for working mothers, having first made more than just a token gesture to include more women in his previous ministerial shakeup.

Pundits have suggested, however, that along with Hiroshi Hase, a popular ex-professional wrestler-turned politician who will take over from education minister Hakubun Shimomura, who stepped down for his ministry's bungled handling of the construction plans for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic stadium, Marukawa, a University of Tokyo graduate and working mother, will help with Abe's slumping support rate as she was a popular face on Asahi TV.

"Following the enactment of the security bills last month despite the mass outpouring of opposition from the public, the approval rating for Abe's cabinet plummeted to below the 40 percent mark, with around 80 percent of the nation feeling debate on the bills was inadequate and almost 70 percent believing that Abe has brought the nation closer to war,"political analyst Teruhisa Muramatsu told Xinhua.

"Hence, the appointments of Marukawa and Hase, both former celebrities, were partly based on Abe's desperate need to garner more support from a public still reeling from having 70-years of peace wrenched away from them and a largely unknown future looming that could very well see Japan directly involved in international conflicts," Muramatsu added.

Of the 19 Cabinet members appointed, other notable strategic changes according to pundits here included Abe naming Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, a former finance ministry bureaucrat, as being in charge of implementing policies to boost the birthrate and bolster spending on the elderly and child care, as part of the prime minister's push to counter Japan's dramatically shrinking and aging population, which is inextricably linked to the nation's tepid economy.

Government projections have shown that due to the rapidly declining birthrate and surging welfare costs as the greying population continues to swell, Japan's labor force could dwindle by as much as 50 percent by 2060 meaning the nation's financial means would fall drastically short, as such, Abe has recently laid out plans to halt the population slide from 127 million, as it currently stands, to 100 million, as would be the case within 50 years without some kind of critical intervention.

"Central to Abe's efforts to reinvigorate the economy, Kato has the somewhat ambiguous task of encouraging couples to have more children, while instituting policies to lessen the cost and burden of those in employment caring for their elderly relatives, under the banner of creating a'Society in Which All 100 Million People Can be Active,'"Imori explained, adding that the terminology used in this slogan was unfortunately reminiscent of propaganda used by the Imperial Army in WWII.

"His most inner-circle not withstanding, all of the new appointments have been made with an eye on them rallying around the'Abenomics'reboot, or'Abenomics 2.0'as it's been dubbed, which amounts to a reworking of the original policies with perhaps more focus this time around on a quantifiable economic expansion by a lofty 20 percent to 600 trillion yen (5 trillion US dollars) , with the similarities being that the target has been announced with no clear explanation or roadmap of how it will be achieved, according to economists,"said Imori.

He added that increasing the birthrate and reforming the social welfare system were also centerpieces of Abe's new masterplan, but remarked that"fundamentally this new masterplan has been rehashed again and again by administrations here for the past three decades."

With a poll published by Japan News Network recently showing that just under 90 percent of respondents here feel that" Abenomics"has not delivered the positive effects such as higher incomes and standards of living as promised, and with small and medium-sized firms consistently disclosing that the economic policies instituted since Abe came to the helm have had negligible effects on their balance sheets, Imori and Muramatsu both concurred that Abe's cabinet and government in general are now under increasing pressure to turn tired rhetoric into real results.