Tokyo: Prime Minister Naoto Kan named a new foreign minister as part of his Cabinet reshuffle on Friday, putting a new stamp on the administration after surviving a party leadership challenge earlier in the week.
Seiji Maehara, a security expert who was previously transport minister, will quickly be put to the test with an escalating diplomatic spat with China over a boat collision near disputed islands. He will also become the point man for the nettlesome issue of relocating of a controversial US Marine base on Okinawa.
The reshuffle comes after Kan, a fiscal disciplinarian who took office just three months ago, won a divisive Democrat party leadership election on Tuesday and promised to use his victory to push ahead with efforts to cap spending, create jobs and build party unity.
"Now that the election is over, we will band together to work so that we can break the sense of stagnation that has affected Japan in the past 20 years," Kan said.
Kan retained the ministers for the key Cabinet posts of finance and defence, but changed 10 of the 17 positions, including appointing a new trade minister.
The new line-up marks "a fresh start" for the Prime Minister as he deals with a range of issues including a sluggish economy and fiscal problems, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku said as he announced the line-up. The Cabinet picks reflect the Prime Minister`s "commitment to push for reforms that would make a breakthrough amid Japan`s difficult situation”.
An expert in defence and diplomatic issues, Maehara has served on parliamentary and party panels on the USJapan security alliance and other military strategic issues.
Maehara, 48, made a splash soon after becoming transport minister last fall by suspending a massive dam project that the Democrats considered a prime example of wasteful public works spending under the long-ruling conservatives whom they overthrew last year.
Sengoku praised Maehara as a "man of realism”, with "outstanding analytical skills and principles”.
His first test will be dealing with an increasingly assertive China, which has been harshly critical of Japan`s arrest of a Chinese captain whose boat rammed two Japanese patrol vessels last week near disputed islands in the East China Sea. Beijing has said the incident could hurt bilateral ties.
On Thursday, Maehara flew to the area and inspected patrol boats and visited coast guard personnel to praise their efforts to seize the captain.
"Maehara is probably temperamentally or ideologically not inclined to succumb to Chinese pressure," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. "He`ll probably stick to his guns, though I am sure he will try not to further escalate the tension."
As for the US base dispute on Okinawa, Kan has said he will honour an agreement with Washington to keep the base on Okinawa, though the plan faces vehement opposition from local residents that will make it difficult to execute.
At home, Kan faces a divided Parliament that will make it difficult to pass legislation. In July, the Democrats lost control of the less powerful upper house. To pass bills, Kan`s administration will have to seek support on a case-by-case basis with opposition parties.
Japan surprised markets on Wednesday by intervening in the currency market to weaken the yen, whose spike to 15-year highs has squeezed foreign income at the nation`s key exporters like Nissan Motor Co and Toshiba Corp. The dollar has since risen, although some analysts say the move`s impact will be short-lived.