Japan: Shuffling for Success?

Early this week, Japan’s majority party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), replaced several top ministerial positions in preparation for an election that is expected late this year or early next spring. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda appointed ten new ministers to cabinet positions, leaving only eight ministers in returning to positions they held before October 1st. As the third such cabinet change in Noda’s year-long tenure as prime minister, the move has hardly caught anyone off guard. Rather, this shuffle seems a predictable, desperate attempt to shore up party support.

Although the Cabinet had almost sixty percent support following its inauguration last year, throughout December it’s popularity had dwindled to almost twenty percent. This drop in approval (and thus electability) comes at a time when the opposition LDP has announced political old-timer Abe as head of party and is soaring in the polls. Awash in bad news, Noda must have decided another shuffle of his cabinet was the answer to his electability woes.

And perhaps he was right. Although several of the new ministers are relatively unknown to the public (many Japanese even confused the new Finance Minister with a recently retired baseball star of the same family name), several charismatic and popular leaders were put in higher, more visible cabinet posts. For example, Jun Azumi (the previous Finance Minister known for his quick tongue and voter support) will now take a role as top deputy secretary general of the DPJ.

That said, it is unlikely this shuffle will have any real effect on the upcoming election. Chosen more for perceived popularity than real job credentials, many of Noda’s new cabinet picks are already drawing criticism from news sources and opposition. Meanwhile, a Tuesday poll by Japanese news source Kyodo found that the new cabinet’s popularity had edged up only slightly with the move, settling up three points over the past month to about twenty-nine percent on Tuesday. This is still below the thirty percent popularity line generally thought prerequisite for success in Japanese elections, and with the DPJ hesitant to call elections, the Japanese people would have plenty of time to recover from the honeymoon of yet another leadership change. Japan has found its cabinet shuffled, but its electorate unstirred.

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