TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday (Sep 11) appointed new foreign and defence ministers, and drafted the son of former leader Junichiro Koizumi in a broad Cabinet reshuffle that kept allies in key posts.
Telegenic Shinjiro Koizumi, Abe's new environment minister, regularly tops lists of lawmakers whom voters favour to succeed to the nation's top job.
Koizumi was one of 13 first-time ministers among 19 whose appointments were announced by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. At 38 years old, Koizumi becomes the third-youngest to win a portfolio in post-war Japan, local media said.
Koizumi's appointment, although to one of the less powerful Cabinet posts, could give a popularity boost to the new lineup.
It could also bolster Koizumi's chance of competing to succeed Abe when the prime minister's term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party chief ends in September 2021.
Koizumi - popularly called Shinjiro to distinguish him from his father - grabbed headlines last month with news that he would marry Christel Takigawa, a French-Japanese television presenter, and they will soon have a baby.
Despite intense media spotlight, he has been coy on expressing his view on the issues of the day and there will be close scrutiny over his policies on nuclear power, particularly on whether he will break with his father's anti-nuclear stance.
Abe, who returned to power in December 2012 promising to reboot the economy and bolster defence, is already on track to become Japan's longest-serving premier in November.
Despite drafting more than a dozen new faces, Abe retained his close allies, Finance Minister Taro Aso, 78, and Suga, 70. Both have served in their posts since Abe returned to office.
“It looks like the ultimate buddy-buddy Cabinet. He's shuffling the same people around, with only those with good ties with Abe joining," said Norihiro Fujito, chief investment strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley.
Aso must help ensure the economy weathers an increase in the sales tax to 10 per cent from 8 per cent in October, which could dampen consumption when a US-China trade war is clouding growth.
Abe kept veteran lawmaker Toshihiro Nikai, 80, as LDP secretary general and Fumio Kishida - also considered a possible heir to the premier - as party policy chief.
POSSIBLE HEIRS, CONSTITUTION REFORM
Japan's new foreign minister is Toshimitsu Motegi, 63, who was promoted as a reward for his work in negotiating a trade deal with the United States.
A Harvard-educated political veteran, he may be in the starting blocks in the race to succeed Abe, noted Tobias Harris, an expert on Japanese politics at consultancy Teneo.
Outgoing foreign minister Taro Kono was shifted to the defence portfolio, in a move seen as reinforcing Tokyo's hard line towards South Korea at a time of worsening ties between the two neighbours.
A fluent English speaker well-known in Washington, Kono has a reputation as a maverick. He has been on the front line of Japan's feud with South Korea over wartime history and trade.
Analysts do not expect the shake-up to herald significant changes to Japan's diplomatic policy, which is managed largely by the prime minister's office.
Another Abe ally and potential future prime minister, former health, labour and welfare minister Katsunobu Kato, returned to his old post.
Abe also appointed a former Olympic speed skater, Seiko Hashimoto, as Olympics minister to prepare for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, one of two women to win posts.
Abe, who could seek a rare fourth term as LDP leader in 2021 if party rules change, has made clear he intends to pursue his goal of revising the post-war, US-drafted constitution to clarify the status of the military.
The charter, if taken literally, bans a standing military but has been stretched to allow armed forces for self-defence.
Abe's task got tougher when his LDP-led coalition lost its two-thirds majority in a July upper house election. Amendments to the charter require approval by two-thirds of each chamber of parliament and a majority in a referendum.