Prime Minister Fumio Kishida plans to rebuild his administration following the dismissal of Reconstruction Minister Kenya Akiba, now that a major distraction has been removed before the start of the ordinary Diet session in January.
Kishida is expected to focus on diplomacy at the start of the year, including a possible visit to the United States, and a reshuffle of the Cabinet and Liberal Democratic Party executive branch is unlikely to happen any time soon.
Kishida wore a stern expression when he announced Akiba's resignation to the media at the Prime Minister's Office on Tuesday. "As [Reconstruction] Minister Akiba has asked to resign, I have decided to accept his request," Kishida said.
Three members of Kishida's Cabinet resigned in the last Diet session: former Economic Revitalization Minister Daishiro Yamagiwa over ties to the Unification Church; former Justice Minister Yasuhiro Hanashi, who made flippant comments about the death penalty; and former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Minoru Terada, who was implicated in a money-related scandal.
In each case, Kishida was harshly criticized for his slow response. In a nationwide opinion poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun, the disapproval rating for his cabinet was 52%, the highest figure logged since Kishida became prime minister.
Akiba allegedly paid two secretaries for their work, in breach of the law, during the House of Representatives election last year.
Although Akiba managed to make it through the last Diet session, LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi said, "Suspicions have not yet been dispelled," reflecting fears within the LDP that the under-fire lawmaker would not be able to withstand prolonged debates in the Diet over the issue.
The prime minister is believed to have concluded that he had to remove the cause of the distractions before the start of next year's Diet session, even though the resignation of a fourth Cabinet minister would likely leave a bruise.
"He can bring the curtain down at the end of the year and will be able to get off to a good start in the new year," a senior government official said.
Some LDP lawmakers have suggested that a reshuffle is needed to buoy the administration. However, there is always a risk that a scandal will be uncovered involving a newly appointed minister.
Kishida's faction in the LDP is the fifth-largest in the party. If another faction recommends candidates for the Cabinet, it would be difficult for Kishida to reject them, regardless of their qualifications.
"There is no need to open Pandora's box," Kishida told someone in his inner circle, reflecting his cautious stance about a reshuffle.
"At present, I am not thinking of reshuffling the Cabinet," Kishida said on Tuesday. "At least it won't happen during the New Year holiday period."
Motegi and LDP Vice President Taro Aso are reportedly considering a plan to invite the Democratic Party for the People into the ruling coalition government led by the LDP and Komeito.
However, during a TV program aired on Tuesday, Kishida also stressed that "a major change that would alter the composition of the coalition is not in my head right now."
The prime minister has a tight political schedule in January, with a series of overseas trips being arranged.
Kishida is scheduled to go to the United Kingdom, France and Italy around Jan. 8, and the Japanese and U.S. governments are coordinating efforts to hold a bilateral summit in Washington on Jan. 13, which would be Kishida's first visit to the White House as prime minister.
Meanwhile, many lawmakers, particularly in the House of Councillors, want the start date of the ordinary Diet session to be moved forward from Jan. 27 to Jan. 23 to allow more time for deliberations.
"Right now, the priority for the prime minister is not a reshuffle, it's ensuring that his [planned] visit to the United States is a success," a senior LDP official said.
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