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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled his new cabinet Thursday.

Cabinet shake-up stanches bleeding for embattled Abe

Poll still shows lingering distrust, skepticism about Japanese leader's priorities

TOKYO -- The approval rating of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet picked up slightly after a reshuffle Thursday, a new Nikkei Inc./TV Tokyo survey shows, but a recent string of scandals seems to have dealt a lasting blow to the government's credibility.

The poll conducted Thursday and Friday put support for the cabinet at 42%, up 3 percentage points from the previous survey in late July, while its disapproval rating fell 3 points to 49%. Though this marked a halt to a decline that began in April, the government's approval rating remains underwater.

The results underscore deep-seated distrust of the prime minister, the current government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. A plurality of those not supporting the government -- 48% -- said it is because they do not consider it trustworthy. This marks a 4-point increase from the previous survey, which had already showed the largest rise among all such responses since Abe's second stint as prime minister began in December 2012.

Scandals surrounding the approval process for a veterinary school of a private school operator run by a friend of Abe, as well as an alleged cover-up of activity logs kept by Self-Defense Forces personnel in South Sudan, have taken their toll. A whopping 77% of respondents are unsatisfied with the government's explanation of the vet school affair, while 67% said the same of the logs.

Cleaning house

Abe hoped to use the reshuffle to start fresh with a clean slate. Recently departed Defense Minister Tomomi Inada and ministers linked to the school scandal were replaced with what he called "results-oriented professionals." This seems to have paid off, with more respondents approving of the new-look cabinet than not, at 42% to 36%.

Of those supporting the revamp, a plurality of 28% specifically cited the removal of problematic cabinet members. Another 23% applauded what they consider Abe's meritocratic approach, while 18% like the sense of stability the new lineup provides.

Among those not supporting the new cabinet, the most common reason given was too few young people, cited by 20%. Another 18% said the prime minister was too beholden to LDP factions, and 17% complained about a lack of fresh faces.

Slow progress

This revamp did more to improve the public's view of Abe's government than the previous reshuffle in August 2016, after which the cabinet's approval rating remained flat at 58%.

But the impact pales in comparison to the 11-point boost from a September 2014 shake-up that brought in several women, including Yuko Obuchi as minister of economy, trade and industry. An overhaul during Abe's first stint as prime minister in 2007 lifted the government's approval rating by 13 points.

"I don't think this is such a simple situation that just getting a [new leadership] structure in place will boost our approval rating," Abe said Friday on Nippon Television. "We're being asked to get real results."

Eyes on the economy

Abe stressed that the economy is the government's top priority, adding that "we'll put all our effort into creating a virtuous economic cycle." But 51% of survey respondents said the government's priorities lie elsewhere, with just 40% agreeing with the prime minister.

Asked what the government should focus on, with multiple responses allowed, 51% cited reform of the social security system, including pensions. This was followed by economic stimulus at 35%. Just 13% mentioned amending the constitution, a longtime goal of Abe's. The prime minister said after the reshuffle that he is not following a preset schedule on revising the charter.

Support for the LDP remained roughly flat, edging up 2 points to 37%, while support for the main opposition Democratic Party languished at 8%. Ruling coalition partner Komeito and the Japanese Communist Party each polled at 5%. The proportion of unaffiliated voters shrank 5 points to 36%.

Nikkei Research conducted the nationwide survey of individuals 18 or older via random-digit dialing. It received 933 responses, for a response rate of 43.6%.


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