Here comes Koike and friends

With Fukuda Yasuo set to finalize a schedule for a cabinet reshuffle after consultations with Komeito — according to Machimura Nobutaka, the prime minister is waiting for reports on the latest failed Doha Round negotiations before proceeding — the cabinet reshuffle is a go, possibly as early as 4 Aug (Monday).

The media has immediately shifted from hounding the prime minister to reshuffle to speculating about who will be included in the new cabinet.

This is the sort of thing at which the Japanese political press excels. In the coming days, readers and viewers will be treated to an endless parade of bios of possible ministers, figures showing the impact of past cabinet reshuffles on public approval ratings, speculation about the post-Fukuda horse race, and other facts, figures, and hypotheses about the political game. Much if not most of it will be rubbish; it will be difficult to find anyone asking the obvious questions about the reshuffle.

Will it make any difference whatsoever?

Will the new ministers serve for long enough to impact their ministries?

What exactly is the Fukuda iro (color)?

Is the prime minister actually in control of his government and the LDP?

The early speculation about the reshuffle suggests that Mr. Fukuda will do like Mr. Abe and attempt to harness the glamour of the LDP’s leading ladies to boost his popularity. Recall how Koike Yuriko was ushered into the defense ministry last July to replace the hapless (and it turns out, horribly corrupt) Kyuma Fumio just in time for the official campaign for the upper house election.

Mr. Fukuda may repeat the trick, if Yukan Fuji is to be believed. The cover of the Friday edition shows Ms. Koike and Nakagawa Hidenao, her leading backer, watching boxing together, and proclaims, “Koike as Chief Cabinet Secretary rises to the surface — figuring in the post-Fukuda outlook.” The hope, according to an unnamed LDP member, is that having Ms. Koike as the government’s spokeswoman will make the difference in the government’s public support.

“Prime Minister Fukuda does not like her performance. But if she can use her competitive instinct and her ability to steal the limelight — as when she published her tell-all book after her resignation — as cabinet spokesman, then the approval rating will likely increase. It will also satisfy former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro’s hope of wanting someone from his Machimura faction taking either LDP secretary-general or chief cabinet secretary.”

Presumably Mr. Mori would prefer someone other than the woman whose prospects he has derided as his faction’s representative in these senior positions, but the sentiment remains relevant. If the sentiments expressed in this article and on the morning talk shows today are accurate, the prime minister and/or his advisers think that adding a glamorous sheen in the form of Ms. Koike as well as some combination of Noda Seiko, Obuchi Yuko, and one or two other female LDP politicians will distract the public from the Fukuda government’s inability to govern and raise the chances that Mr. Fukuda will last long enough to lead the LDP into the next general election.

Judging from her time in Ichigaya, it is probably inappropriate for Mr. Fukuda to expect too much help from Ms. Koike, not necessarily through any deficiency of her own — although the Yukan Fuji article suggests that like Mr. Machimura, the incumbent chief cabinet secretary, her nemawashi skills are in question — but because she has too many enemies with the LDP, whether because of her sex or because of her reputation as a “wandering bird” (previously discussed here).

The immediate surfacing of a women-heavy cabinet suggests how transparently bogus one of the major reasons for the reshuffle — the need to define a Fukuda color that is distinct from Mr. Abe’s — is. How would appointing Ms. Koike, who was first Abe Shinzo’s national security adviser and then his minister of defense, distance Mr. Fukuda from Mr. Abe? How does that clarify the Fukuda color, unless by Fukuda color people mean the literal color of the cabinet, in which case Ms. Koike and the other women under consideration might add some much needed brightness to the sea of dark suits?

Not surprisingly, this reshuffle will be nothing more than an exercise in image management. Any talk of the policy implications of the reshuffle is mostly hot air, considering that it seems that Masuzoe Yoichi — who holds the most critical portfolio in light of the health and welfare-heavy agenda — will stay put as minister for health, labor, and welfare.

Will the Japanese people fall for it?

I doubt it. I don’t think the public will fall for the media hype that would surround a cabinet with Ms. Koike as chief cabinet secretary. I think the Japanese people are waiting for results, and barring results, will hold the LDP accountable at election time, reshuffle or no reshuffle.

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