Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday reshuffled his Cabinet, tapping a record-tying five women as ministers including its top diplomat, in a bid to boost his government's popularity amid speculation that he is exploring the best timing to dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap election.
Kishida, a dovish moderate, hopes the revamp will help pave the way for his Liberal Democratic Party to emerge victorious again from the next lower house election and strengthen support from within his party before the LDP presidential race next year.
Out of 19 ministers, Kishida selected 11 new faces as he moves to create a fresh image for his Cabinet, while retaining several key members to maintain stability. Former Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa, a veteran lawmaker, became the first female foreign minister in around two decades.
Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno and industry minister Yasutoshi Nishimura remained in their positions. Matsuno and Nishimura are known for their conservative leanings.
The reshuffle comes as support for Kishida's administration has continued to slide due partly to problems with the "My Number" national identification card system and public frustration over rising prices in the absence of salary hikes.
Given the desire for policy continuity, Kishida retained Digital Minister Taro Kono, a Georgetown University graduate and popular figure who has previously served as foreign minister, to tackle the My Number card problems.
Among the new faces, Minoru Kihara, who served as a special adviser to former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, was tapped as defense minister. Kihara is a senior member of a bipartisan group promoting ties with Taiwan.
Other new Cabinet members include health minister Keizo Takemi, reconstruction minister Shinako Tsuchiya and farm minister Ichiro Miyashita.
Noting that Japan has turned change into an opportunity so far, Kishida named his new team a "Cabinet that will make change a strength." He said his government will put emphasis on the economy, social affairs, diplomacy and security as its policy "pillars."
Asked about what he expects from the five female ministers, Kishida said at a press conference after the second Cabinet reshuffle since he took office in October 2021 that he hopes they will "make the most of their female sensibilities."
As part of efforts to bolster his support, Kishida was keen to expand the number of female ministers in a country notorious for its slow progress in women's empowerment. A World Economic Forum report said earlier this year that Japan ranked 138th out of 146 nations in gender equality in politics.
In the new Cabinet, third-term lower house member Ayuko Kato, minister in charge of child policies, is one of the five female members. The figure marks an increase from two in the previous Cabinet and equals the number in the Cabinets formed by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2001 and then premier Shinzo Abe in 2014.
The four-year terms of current lower house members expire in October 2025, but expectations persist that Kishida will dissolve the chamber for a snap election if the support rate for his Cabinet rebounds.
Kishida hopes a victory would lead to his re-election in the LDP's leadership race in September 2024, laying the groundwork for a long-lasting administration, political experts said.
But Kishida's failure to give major posts to newcomers may limit the public impact of his new Cabinet, the experts added.
The average age of the latest Cabinet members, including Kishida, is 63.5. Land minister Tetsuo Saito, the only member from the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, and two others are the oldest at 71. Kato is the youngest at 44.
Earlier Wednesday, Kishida, who heads the LDP, changed the ruling party's leadership. Among its four key executives, he retained Toshimitsu Motegi and Koichi Hagiuda as secretary general and policy chief, respectively, while picking Yuko Obuchi, the 49-year-old daughter of late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, as election campaign chief.
The selection of Obuchi appears to be another move to freshen up a roster otherwise dominated by male lawmakers and comes despite her resignation as industry minister in 2014 following a political funds misuse scandal.
Obuchi replaced Hiroshi Moriyama, who became chief of the general council.
Kishida, the leader of the LDP's fourth-largest faction, also retained Vice President Taro Aso, a former prime minister who heads its second-biggest camp, to secure a balanced distribution of power within the party. Motegi is the chief of the LDP's third-largest faction.
Matsuno, Nishimura and Hagiuda are key members of the biggest conservative intraparty group once led by Abe, Japan's longest-serving prime minister who was fatally shot during an election campaign speech in 2022.
After the reshuffle, Kishida will work on economic steps to deal with price hikes, consider how to fund his flagship child-rearing policy and address issues related to the release of treated radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.
At the news conference, Kishida pledged that his new Cabinet will try to map out a fresh economic stimulus package by the end of next month, as price hikes have been dragging down domestic demand.