Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shuffled his Cabinet and key party posts on Wednesday to strengthen his position before a key party leadership vote next year, bringing in a new defense minister and the country’s first female foreign minister since 2004.
Kishida appointed five women to the 19-member Cabinet, part of his attempt to buoy sagging support ratings for his previous male-dominated Cabinet, which had only two women. The five females match the number in two earlier Japanese Cabinets — in 2014 and 2001.
One of the five, former Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa, was appointed foreign minister, replacing Yoshimasa Hayashi.
Minoru Kihara, who has been serving on the governing Liberal Democratic Party’s national security committee, was appointed defense minister, replacing Yasukazu Hamada.
It is the second Cabinet shuffle since Kishida took office in October 2021, when he promised a fairer distribution of economic growth, measures to tackle Japan’s declining population and a stronger national defense. Russia’s war in Ukraine, rising energy prices and Japan’s soaring defense costs have created challenges in his tenure, keeping his support ratings at low levels.
Kishida’s three-year term as the conservative LDP’s president expires in September 2024, when he is expected to seek a second term. His faction in the party is the fourth largest, so he must stay on good terms with the others to maintain his position.
He distributed Cabinet posts to reflect that balance of power, with nearly half of the positions going to the two largest factions associated with assassinated former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former leader Taro Aso.
Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki, Digital Reform Minister Taro Kono and Economic Security Minister Sanae Takaichi were among six ministers who stayed.
The LDP supports traditional family values and gender roles, and the low number of female politicians in leadership positions is often criticized by women’s rights groups as democracy without women.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel welcomed the new Cabinet. “These appointments will bring a level of freshness, a level of energy and purposefulness in that endeavor that started two years ago” as Japan and the United States continue to elevate their security ties, Emanuel said in a telephone interview.
Opposition leaders expressed disappointment in the new Cabinet. “We recognize the increase of female ministers to five, but otherwise, [the new Cabinet] conveys no sense of what it actually wants to achieve,” said Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan executive Katsuya Okada.
Kishida is expected to compile a new economic package to deal with rising gasoline and food prices.
Two people who lost posts in the shakeup had been touched by recent scandals.
Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tetsuro Nomura was reprimanded by Kishida and apologized after calling treated radioactive wastewater being released from the Fukushima nuclear power plant “contaminated,” a term China uses to characterize the water as unsafe. And magazine reports have alleged that Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara influenced a police investigation of his wife over her ex-husband’s suspicious death.
Kishida last shuffled his Cabinet a year ago after Abe’s assassination revealed ties between senior governing party members and the Unification Church, a South Korea-based conservative religious group.