Focus on gender, defence as Japan PM names new cabinet


Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has picked a woman as foreign minister and appointed as defence minister a politician who has worked to build ties with Taiwan.

The new cabinet choices revealed on Wednesday spotlight a face of Japan with greater gender equality and a stronger line on defence as Kishida battles sagging ratings with his term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) set to end next year.

Yoko Kamikawa, a former justice minister who oversaw the execution of key members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult responsible for the deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, becomes foreign minister.

Top government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno said the role of defence minister went to Minoru Kihara, a pro-Taiwan politician who has visited the island in the past and belongs to a Japan-Taiwan inter-parliamentary group.

Both will be tasked with navigating ties with China, which took a downturn after Japan started releasing treated radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean, drawing ire from China.

Kihara will also oversee the bolstering of Japan's military as part of a plan to double defence spending across five years by 2027.

He will have to solve the question of how to fund that build-up amid rising tensions in the East Asia region over China's military expansion and maritime disputes.

China claims Taiwan as its own territory and will be sensitive to any shift in Japan's stance on the democratically governed island.

Professor Takashi Kawakami, a security expert at Takushoku University in Tokyo, said the choice of Kihara as defence minister "isn't an anti-China move, but it does indicate a closeness with Taiwan".

"I do think this sends a message that Japan is seeking stability in Taiwan alongside the United States," he said.

One political commentator noted, however, that such ministerial roles had diminished in importance in favour of dialogue with China at the highest levels.

"Around the world, summit diplomacy has become the mainstream," said Shigenobu Tamura, who previously worked for the LDP.

"Even if the foreign and defence minister posts change, there won't be any change or impact on Japan's diplomatic policy."

The cabinet reshuffle comes as Kishida, who assumed office two years ago, has seen his popularity dip in recent months after a string of scandals, including data mishaps linked to government ID cards and the arrest of a vice minister under suspicion of bribery.

About 43 per cent of respondents disapproved of Kishida's leadership while 36 per cent approved, according to a poll by public broadcaster NHK conducted last week.