September 15, 2023
TOKYO – Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ultimately went mostly for stability, rather than bold changes, when unveiling his reshuffled Cabinet and the lineup of top Liberal Democratic Party executives on Wednesday.
Kishida, who also is LDP president, initially toyed with the idea of renewing his administration by bringing in fresh faces to the key positions of LDP secretary general and chief cabinet secretary. However, he eventually opted to retain the incumbents in these positions in the interests of maintaining stability within his administration.
However, the prime minister did include a surprise among the influential cabinet posts with his selection of a new foreign minister.
On Monday, Kishida was in the process of finalizing his personnel selections. He called LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi to the LDP president’s office to discuss one crucial post.
“I’d like to make Yuko Obuchi the party’s Election Strategy Committee chairperson,” Kishida said.
Obuchi is a member of the LDP’s Motegi faction, but she and Motegi have at times had an uneasy relationship. Mikio Aoki, a former chairman of the LDP’s caucus in the House of Councillors who died in June, had touted Obuchi as a future leader of the faction.
In a bid to win over Motegi and make Kishida’s plan for Obuchi easier to swallow, the prime minister had early this month made up his mind to keep Motegi on as secretary general. In addition, Kishida sought Motegi’s advice on issues such as handling the extraordinary Diet session and party management since autumn.
“I understand,” Motegi replied, agreeing to the plan. “I’ll continue to firmly support you as prime minister.”
Motegi has been considered in some quarters to be a potential rival to Kishida in the LDP’s next presidential election. As the possibility of a House of Representatives dissolution hung in the air, some of Kishida’s close aides and senior LDP officials quietly floated a proposal to slip Motegi into another post such as finance minister and have the younger, high-profile Obuchi take his place as secretary general.
However, the Kishida faction headed by the prime minister is only the LDP’s fourth-largest grouping. Retaining the support of the second-biggest Aso faction and the third-largest Motegi faction is essential for Kishida. There were concerns that upsetting Motegi and losing his support could quickly destabilize the running of the administration.
Motegi had told close aides that he “definitely wouldn’t accept” the post of finance minister, but he also had informed the prime minister — through channels including LDP Vice President Taro Aso, who is a close ally — that he intended to support the administration.
Aso, who heads the Aso faction, also opposed the plan to replace Motegi. On Sept. 5, after departing on a trip to Indonesia, Kishida telephoned multiple senior LDP officials and strongly hinted he would keep Motegi in his current post.
Top spokesperson’s post
Kishida also considered a plan to appoint LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Koichi Hagiuda — a member of the Abe faction — as chief cabinet secretary. Replacing the cabinet’s top spokesperson would inject significant freshness into the administration. The incumbent, Hirokazu Matsuno, had won plaudits for his solid job performance. Replacing Abe faction member Matsuno with a fellow member of that faction was considered unlikely to trigger a major backlash, so a plan to replace him with Hagiuda was hatched.
However, the chief cabinet secretary in principle needs to hold two press conferences per day. Hagiuda was previously reported to have had ties with the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, a religious group known as the Unification Church, which prompted strong concern about Kishida’s plan.
“It would be tough to appoint him as chief cabinet secretary,” one source said.
Ultimately, Kishida kept Hagiuda as Policy Research Council chairman. At a press conference Wednesday, Hagiuda was asked about his links with the Unification Church, but he denied that he had not properly explained his situation.
“The stability offered by Matsuno, who hasn’t been tainted by a scandal, was hard to dismiss,” a source close to Kishida told The Yomiuri Shimbun.
One major surprise
Kishida did catch many people by surprise with a well-hidden plan to select Japan’s first female foreign minister since Yoriko Kawaguchi took up the post 21 years ago. Replacing the incumbent, Yoshimasa Hayashi, with fellow Kishida faction member Yoko Kamikawa added another woman to the cabinet lineup and was a change that presented few obstacles. Kishida himself had confided to close aides that failing to share key posts around members of his factions could cause a buildup of volatile tension.
Kishida apparently hopes to have the vastly experienced minister Hayashi to handle faction affairs. Nevertheless, Hayashi had visited Ukraine earlier this month and was moving ahead with preparations to attend the U.N. General Assembly, such as making a schedule for talks with counterparts.
Japan also is chair of the Group of Seven advanced nations this year. According to a Foreign Ministry source, Hayashi seemed philosophical about his possible fate. “If I’m told to quit, that’s just the way it is,” Hayashi reportedly said.
A senior government official touched on the fact that Kishida served as foreign minister for more than four years during the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and expressed concern about the latest switch in personnel. “It’s not a post that should be changed within a short span just because of a decision shaped by the political situation,” the official said.