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FOCUS: Japan PM Kishida may seek conservative support by reshuffling Cabinet

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet reshuffle, planned after attending ASEAN-related and Group of 20 summits, may be aimed at obtaining solid support from conservatives within his Liberal Democratic Party, analysts said.

Kishida is expected to revamp his Cabinet next Wednesday, at a time when China has lambasted Japan’s discharge of treated radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean, further straining their already fragile ties.

While trying to freshen up the image of his government to shore up his popularity, Kishida, known as a dovish moderate, has become eager to bolster his political foundation by offering key Cabinet posts to conservative LDP lawmakers who are known for their anti-China views.

If Kishida can enjoy backing from conservatives, who have traditionally put more emphasis on relations with the United States than on those with Communist-led China, he might be confident in calling a snap election later this year, sources close to him said.

“Kishida does not have strong leadership ability, but he has managed to maintain a balance in the allocation of posts and policy orientation to avoid criticism within the ruling party,” said Shiro Sakaiya, a professor in Japanese politics at the University of Tokyo.

Other analysts said Kishida is likely to attempt to tap more hawkish lawmakers who are critical of China as Cabinet members.

On Aug. 24, Japan started releasing the treated water from the Fukushima nuclear complex despite harsh opposition from China. Immediately after the beginning of the discharge, Beijing retaliated by imposing a blanket ban on Japanese seafood imports.

In China, anti-Japan sentiment has been on the rise since the water release. Over the past weeks, there has been a flood of nuisance phone calls that appeared to originate from China, along with online appeals to boycott Japanese products.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (2nd from R) attends the first day of the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi, India, on Sept. 9, 2023. (Pool photo) (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Japanese schools in China have experienced harassment, including incidents of stones and eggs being thrown onto their grounds. Despite Kishida’s desire to mend ties with the neighboring country, anti-China sentiment has instead been mounting in Japan.

In November last year, Kishida agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping to seek “constructive and stable” bilateral relations at their meeting in Bangkok, the first face-to-face Sino-Japanese summit since December 2019.

During a series of Association of Southeast Asian Nations-related and G-20 summits, Kishida, who embarked on a one-week trip to Indonesia and India from Tuesday, conveyed assurances to other leaders about the safety of the water discharge.

But he apparently failed to gain concessions on the issue from Premier Li Qiang, who participated in the gatherings as a representative of China.

Japan has criticized China’s seafood ban, while Beijing has insisted the disposal of “nuclear-contaminated water” from the plant, which suffered meltdowns after the devastating March 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami, would harm the marine environment and human health.

Such a situation is reminiscent of the past, dating back to September 2012 when tensions between Tokyo and Beijing erupted after the Japanese government of then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda brought the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea under state control.

The group of uninhabited islets, called Diaoyu in Chinese, is administrated by Japan but claimed by China. The decision by Noda, predecessor of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, sparked anti-Japanese protests across China.

Following Tokyo’s purchase of the Senkakus, a large number of Chinese people burned Japanese flags. Many Japanese living in China were forced to refrain from speaking their language in public.

In December 2012, Abe, known as a hawkish politician who pursued close ties with the United States, staged a comeback as Japan’s premier. He adopted a hard-line approach against China, garnering support from conservative lawmakers within the ruling party.

With an eye on challenging China’s expanding regional influence, Abe advocated a vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” to get closer to other democracies such as the United States and India, said Yoshihide Soeya, a professor emeritus of political science at Keio University in Tokyo.

Even after stepping down in 2020, Abe, who once was also prime minister for one year from 2006, became the head of the biggest faction within the LDP, retaining clout over the political arena until he was fatally shot during an election campaign speech in 2022.

Abe, Japan’s longest-serving premier, took a “tough posture” against China, which was “welcomed” by the Japanese electorate, an LDP lawmaker said.

Recently, Kishida has also concentrated on deepening security cooperation with the United States to counter China’s military assertiveness while striving to improve relations with South Korea to tackle missile and nuclear weapon threats from North Korea.

In August, Kishida held a trilateral summit with U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. The meeting took place at the U.S. presidential retreat of Camp David near Washington, with the three leaders pitching their rapport.

Kishida is certain to take a firmer position against China while strengthening Japan’s ties with the United States and its other allies, believing that the move can be employed with the same political strategy as Abe, the lawmaker said.

Other pundits echoed the view, saying Kishida might try to utilize the envisioned Cabinet reshuffle as a window of opportunity to increase support from conservative lawmakers and voters before dissolving the House of Representatives in the near future.

Kishida, who took office in October 2021, has explored the best timing to win a general election to consolidate his political base, as he has been keen to be re-elected as LDP leader. The next LDP presidential race is scheduled in September 2024.

Japan’s escalating tensions with China over the treated water being released from the Fukushima plant will probably give a boost to support for Kishida at home, given the growing backlash against Beijing’s aggressive behavior, the pundits said.

Skepticism, however, is rife about whether the Cabinet reshuffle will help the Kishida government to regain popularity, with opposition parties bashing his lackluster policies.

If Kishida “fundamentally reflects on and reconsiders the policies of his administration, I have expectations” for the Cabinet reshuffle, said Akira Koike, head of the secretariat of the Japanese Communist Party, adding, “Otherwise, I do not have much hope.”

Approval ratings for Kishida’s Cabinet have continued to slip against a backdrop of the Fukushima water discharge and a spate of registration errors and other administrative troubles over the “My Number” national identification card system.

Related coverage:

Japan PM Kishida plans to reshuffle Cabinet on Sept. 13

Toshimitsu Motegi,Taro Aso likely to be retained in LDP executive reshuffle

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