Gender equality and relations with China topped Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's priorities on Wednesday, as he reshuffled his cabinet for the first time since taking office in December 2012.
Mr. Abe increased the number of female ministers from two to five – equaling a record set by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi more than a decade ago – as part of his program to raise the profile of women in senior positions by the end of the decade. He also chose two lawmakers considered friendly toward China to fill senior party positions, in an apparent attempt to mend Tokyo’s fractious ties with Beijing.
Despite riling Beijing with his revisionist views on Japan’s wartime conduct and his robust approach toward its rival island claims in the East China Sea, Abe is hoping to break diplomatic deadlock by meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing this fall.
Abe's decision to appoint Sadakazu Tanigaki as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s secretary general, and veteran parliamentarian Toshihiro Nikai as his deputy, drew most attention here.
Mr. Tanigaki, a moderate who favors closer ties with China, was also made minister of state for revitalizing rural communities. Mr. Nikai, who is more trusted in Beijing than many of Abe’s more conservative colleagues, will become Tanigaki’s second-in-command in the LDP.
The chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, speaking as Chinese leaders attended a commemoration of Japan’s wartime defeat, said the two countries had a shared responsibility to safeguard the region's peace and prosperity. “It is vital to develop a forward-looking, cooperative relationship on common issues confronting international society," Mr. Suga told reporters after the reshuffle.
Chinese officials said they hoped the personnel changes at the top of Japan’s governing party would help ease tensions. "We hope that Abe's cabinet members will all be active promoters of the improvement and development of Sino-Japanese relations," foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters.
Beijing will be less pleased with Abe’s pick for defense minister: Akinori Eto, a close Abe ally and member of a group of MPs who support visits by politicians to Yasukuni, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo that honors Japan’s war dead, including 14 class A war criminals. Abe angered China in December 2013 when he paid his respects at the shrine. But like Mr. Eto, he is not expected to add to tensions with a visit this year.
Abe told an evening news conference that the economy remained his priority as the party debates whether to go ahead with an unpopular increase in the sales tax amid mixed economic data.
Abe, whose approval ratings have dipped to below 50 percent in recent weeks, attempted to demonstrate his commitment to “womenomics” by filling five of the 18 cabinet posts with female lawmakers.
The move “should shield Abe from charges of hypocrisy,” says Tobias Harris, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Washington. “However, the LDP still has a problem of having too few women ready to serve in government, and too many men who resent their advancement.”