Unpopular PM reshuffles cabinet in effort to save reputation

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, extremely unpopular in the polls, announced new replacements in his new cabinet today. But will it save him?


Japan’s entire cabinet handed in their resignations Friday morning, as a part of the procedure of reshuffling the cabinet, a move that Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda announced earlier this week. Later in the day, he appointed Bunmei Ibuki, number two in Fukuda’s Liberal Democratic Party, a finance minister; and Taro Aso, one-time rival to Fukuda, to the position of party general secretary.



According to Frédéric Charles, an RFI correspondent in Japan reporting for FRANCE 24, the popular Aso “is not hiding his ambitions to one day be prime minister.” Aso is a one-time diamond dealer and renowned Manga (Japanese comic book) aficionado notorious for outspokenness: he once lauded Japan’s actions in the Second World War, causing the New York Times to call him “Japan’s offensive minister.” During the last election campaign, he made a joke about Alzheimer’s disease. Despite the gaffes, it is believed that Fukuda made the appointment in the hopes of profiting from Aso’s dynamism and popularity.



Hating Fukuda


Fukuda, who took over as prime minister in September 2007 after the resignation of Shinzo Abe, is extremely unpopular in Japanese opinion polls. “His approval rating is less than 20%,” says Charles. The origins for his falling out of favour are manifold and linked intimately with a decades-old resentment against Fukuda’s party, which despite being called the Liberal Democratic Party is largely conservative,  and “has been in power since the end of the Second World War,” says Charles.



Fukuda’s decision to reorganize his cabinet is partly an effort to counter his reputation as an economy killer. Japan’s output rate fell by 2% last month; today, the Nikkei index dropped 282.22 points, by 2%. Experts predict a recession.


“The finance ministry is incompetent and doesn’t want reforms,” says Charles. Fukuda’s main targets in the new personnel are the Finance and Economic ministers, though experts feel this is just a placebo that may not help Fukuda at all.


According to Charles, the Liberal Democratic Party’s plan has been to raise taxes with the aim of reducing national debt – but at  the expense of growth. “The business powers are calling for the opposition to take power,” said Charles. “This hasn’t happened since the Second World War, except for a brief period in the 1990s.”


In addition, Japan’s national debt is 180% of the GDP, says Charles, “the highest in the world,” while the nation’s financial burdens are worsened by the country’s negative population growth, and its corollary, an increasingly aging population requiring retirement and health benefits.


The latter problem is made even more complicated by a bewildering disappearance of 50 million retirement files, according to Charles. “The files started to disappear when the manual filing process was transferred to computers. They didn’t know how to use computers and everything disappeared. It’s been a big cover up scandal over the last 20 years.”


But who’s at fault?


Much of the rancor aimed at Fukuda is rooted in circumstances that predate his term. Part of the reason for Japan’s woes, according to Charles, is that “the nation is not run by the ministers; it’s run by bureaucrats.” This creates a kind of stasis, as does the fact that the parliament’s upper and lower houses are dominated by two different parties: the former by the opposition coalition, the latter by Fukuda’s party. “They are unable to cohabitate, so laws cannot be agreed upon,” says Charles.



You call that a recession?


But what does a “recession” mean in a nation that still has the world’s second strongest economy? According to Charles, “It’s a paradox. Japan is doing better than America or Europe, because it’s less affected by the world financial crisis. Exports are very successful. However, that only constitutes 18% of the GDP. The rest of the economy is underproductive,  employing too many people who don’t do very much.”


Fukuda’s tax-raising scheme will do little to help, believes Charles. “You can’t just raise taxes; you have to raise productivity.”


Charles doesn't think the reshuffle will save Fukuda. His new appointments are still from his party, still from “the old guard who are in their 60s and 70s—barons of the party.” What motivates the party’s decision, says Charles, “is that they just want to stay in power for another half century.”


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