By Kantaro Komiya
TOKYO (Reuters) -Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Saturday he will reshuffle his cabinet next week to address mounting issues including Taiwan tensions, COVID-19 and economic stimulus measures to counter inflation.
“We need to set off a new formation as soon as possible considering the various issues,” he told a news conference in Hiroshima after attending a commemoration for the 77th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bombing in the city.
The earlier-than-expected staff change also comes as his administration faces increasing public scrutiny on the relationship between the religious group Unification Church and ruling party lawmakers, including slain former prime minister Shinzo Abe.
Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of Kishida’s ruling coalition partner Komeito party, said in a Saturday news conference that Kishida had informed him the cabinet reshuffle would be announced on Wednesday.
Kishida did not give any details of his cabinet changes but the Yomiuri daily reported earlier that he would likely replace Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi, given his health issues.
Defence is in the spotlight with tension surging between self-ruled Taiwan and mainland China in recent days.
A recent surge of COVID to record-high infection numbers poses another problem for the government.
A reorganisation of the cabinet and ruling party officials was slated for early September, after a memorial service for Abe who was shot dead last month, but Kishida brought it forward to address falling approval for the cabinet in polls, the Yomiuri said.
The reshuffle comes after Kishida’s conservative coalition government increased its majority in the upper house of parliament in a July election held two days after Abe’s death.
Kishi, 63, the younger brother of Abe, has been defence minister since September 2020.
Jiji news agency reported on Friday that Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki would be retained, and Industry Minister Koichi Hagiuda would either be kept or moved to another important post.
Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, as well as ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Vice President Taro Aso, and Secretary-General Toshimitsu Motegi would also likely retain their positions, the Yomiuri also reported.
UNIFICATION CHURCH PROBE
Kishida was also asked at the news conference about the Unification Church, a religious group to which the mother of the man who shot Abe belonged, and which has been reported to have had particularly close links with Abe’s faction of the LDP.
Kishida said he would order the cabinet to scrutinise any links between the church and cabinet members, including deputy ministers, and review them into “appropriate forms” to seek the public’s understanding.
“As far as I know, I personally do not have any ties with the group,” he said.
In a July 30-31 poll by Kyodo news agency, more than 80% of respondents said the relationship between the Unification Church and politicians must be revealed, and 53% expressed opposition to a state funeral for Abe.
The poll found support for Kishida’s cabinet fell 12.2 points to 51.0%, its lowest in Kyodo polling since his inauguration in October.
Kishida said it was appropriate for the government to organise a state funeral given that Abe was modern Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and given the circumstances of his death during “the very foundation of democracy”, referring to the election campaign.
(Reporting by Kantaro Komiya; Editing by Leslie Adler, Robert Birsel and Kim Coghill)