A New Cabinet in Japan-Does It Work For Washington?

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By Yuki Tatsumi – On August 27, Prime Minister Abe announced the new members of his cabinet. For those in Japan, this cabinet reshuffle was expected to be the first litmus test for Mr. Abe as he tries to stay in power after his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered one of the biggest loss in its party history in the Upper House election held on July 29.

For those in the United States, the biggest concern is how his cabinet reshuffle may affect the US-Japan alliance. In particular, three urgent issues await Abe and his government in the next few months: the extension of the Anti-Terror Special Measures Law (ATSML), bilateral negotiations over Japan’s host nation support for US forces in Japan, and ensuring the full implementation of the US force realignment plan that was agreed in October 2005. Whether Abe can overcome these issues depend on the strength and capability of the key cabinet members – foreign, defense and finance ministers.

Abe’s selection for these positions may alleviate Washington’s concerns in this regard. His new foreign minister Nobutaka Machimura signed the October 2005 agreement between Tokyo and Washington on the basic principles of US force realignment in Japan as then Prime Minister Koizumi’s foreign minister. Masahiko Komura, the new defense minister, is known for his solid legislative skills, and as the foreign minister under late prime minister Keizo Obuchi, he understands the significance of a strong US-Japan alliance as well as anybody in the cabinet. The position of finance minister will be assumed by Fukushiro Nukaga, who served as defense minister when the United States and Washington signed an implementation plan for US force realignment in Japan that was agreed in May 2006. In other words, all the key players have personal ties to the US-Japan alliance and therefore have strong incentive to deliver. In addition, Abe’s selection of his new Chief Cabinet Secretary – a key person in coordinating interagency process in the government and working with the opposition party will be helpful. The position will be occupied by Kaoru Yosano who, unlike his predecessor who alienated everyone in and outside the government, is a well respected figure, clearly capable of working with the opposition party even over the most difficult issues.
However, some questions remain. It still does not alleviate the concerns about whether Abe can exercise political leadership when necessary. For instance, Abe’s handling (or lack thereof) of an open battle between former defense minister Yuriko Koike and vice defense minister Takemasa Moriya over the choice of next vice defense minister raises questions about his will to be decisive and exercise leadership in timely manner.

In essence, the clash between Koike and Moriya was a battle over the control of the ministry: an incoming minister wanted to replace the sitting vice minister so that she could solidify her influence over the bureaucracy; a retiring vice minister wanted the candidate of his choice to succeed him so that he could continue to exercise influence over the bureaucracy even after his retirement. Fights of this kind between politicians and top bureaucrats are not uncommon in Japan. But the fight between Koike and Moriya became an embarrassment for Abe, as it not only prolonged in a very public manner, but the battle spread beyond the Ministry of Defense (MOD) to include then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki, former defense ministers and senior LDP party members. By the time Abe finally weighed in, the Ministry of Defense had entered a bureaucratic paralysis, and his belated intervention was regarded too little, too late.

A new Diet session will start on September 10. Opposition party leader Ichiro Ozawa stands firmly in the way of Abe’s ability to extend the ATMSL which, if not extended, will expire on November 1 and prevent Japan from further supporting the coalition operation in the Operation Enduring Freedom. Abe’s new team should move right away to work with Ozawa’s colleagues in the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to explore ways in which compromises may be made to allow the law to be extended. But in the end, it requires Abe’s strong political determination to do whatever it takes to reach that goal. Whether he can show such a political prowess will be a litmus test for Washington to gauge Abe’s reliability as a partner.

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