TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, beset by scandals and falling support, opted for safe, experienced hands over fresh faces in a cabinet reshuffle on Thursday, but the changes may not boost his support to the extent he seeks.
Many ministers are being reappointed, such as Finance Minister Taro Aso, or are taking up posts they have held before, some in Abe's first 2012 cabinet.
One of the few exceptions is new Foreign Minister Taro Kono, known for both his willingness to criticise the ruling party and a frankness unusual for a Japanese politician.
Abe also appointed longtime ruling party policy veteran Toshimitsu Motegi as new economy minister overseeing structural reforms, which are part of the premier's "Abenomics" stimulus policies aimed at reviving the stagnant economy.
"The economy remains our top priority," Abe told a news conference after the reshuffle, apologising for the scandals he described as having harmed public trust in his policy handling.
"We'll seek to end deflation by accelerating a virtuous economic cycle."
Opinion polls show support for Abe has plunged to its lowest since he returned to office in December 2012 with a promise to revive Japan's stale economy and bolster its defences, endangering his goal of revising the pacifist constitution.
Abe had until recently also been seen as likely to win a third term as head of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and thus the premiership, putting him on track to be Japan's longest-serving prime minister.
But support in recent polls has fallen below 30 percent, with the opposition fanning suspicions of Abe's favouritism to a friend and voters believing that he and his aides have grown arrogant in office. He was also hurt by the LDP's defeat by a novice political party in a July assembly election.
The market appraisal was lukewarm.
"Interpreting it positively, he's re-assembled his first cabinet with hands-on people prioritising economic revival," said Hiroyuki Fukunaga, chief executive at Investrust. "But it also seems as if we've returned to that time."
Abe's choice of Kono, a former administrative reform minister with wide international connections, as top diplomat is likely to draw attention both at home and abroad. Kono has a degree from Georgetown University and worked as an aide for several politicians.
"In the current state of confusion and flip-flop in Washington, Kono's deep and broad network of personal connections will be a huge asset," Jesper Koll, head of equity fund WisdomTree Japan, said in an email.
One of Kono's major tasks will be to coordinate closely with the United States, Japan's closest ally, in the face of North Korea's worrying missile and nuclear development programmes, as well as China's growing regional clout.
"The threat from North Korea has heightened, both for Japan and the United States," Abe said. "There has never been a time when strengthening Japan-U.S. alliance has become so important."
Besides Aso, Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who has drawn criticism as the face of a cabinet that many voters feel came to take them for granted, will remain in their posts.
Others returning to previously held posts are Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera and Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa. Internal Affairs Minister Seiko Noda, often spoken of as a possible future female premier, previously held a slightly different version of that portfolio.
Adding Noda may be an attempt to woo women voters, who are less enthused by the Abe government than men. She also tried to run against Abe in the most recent LDP election.
Despite Abe's promises to create a society "where women can shine," the cabinet has only two women, down from three in the last and five in one of his previous governments - a sign of how far women still have to go in the LDP, said Misako Iwamoto, a women's studies professor at Mie University.
"If you're trying to appoint skilled people, because there are so few skilled women lawmakers, this is what happens," she added.
(Additional reporting by Leika Kihara, Elaine Lies, Ami Miyazaki, Ayai Tomisawa, Stanley White and Chehui Peh; Writing by Elaine Lies and Leika Kihara; Editing by Paul Tait)