TOKYO Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to co-opt a rival and draft more women to spruce up his image while keeping key ministers when he reshuffles his cabinet on Wednesday, a rejig dictated more by political dynamics than policy matters.
Abe has not revamped his cabinet since returning to office in December 2012, a record for a post-World War Two premier. That means dozens of veterans in his male-dominated Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are eager to be tapped for a post.
The risks, however, are that those left out could become more vocal in criticizing Abe if his administration hits a rough patch, or that novice new ministers might commit gaffes.
Abe, who surged to power promising to revive the economy and bolster Japan's security stance in the face of a rising China, has seen his support slip to around 50 percent, still high for a Japanese premier but off early peaks of around 60 percent.
Core members such as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, 65, Finance Minister Taro Aso, 73, Economics Minister Akira Amari, 65, and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, 57, are likely to stay on, signaling policy continuity.
In an apparent bid for party unity, Abe was to tap Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, his predecessor as LDP leader, for the key party post of secretary-general, the LDP's de facto election campaign chief, major media reported.
Tanigaki, 69, hails from a moderate wing of the LDP that favors better ties with China - ties that have been frayed by disputes over territory and wartime history.
He was also an architect of a bipartisan plan to raise Japan's sales tax in two stages to 10 percent by October 2015. Implementation of the second stage is now in doubt due to a string of gloomy economic data.
Abe, who turns 60 this month, appears to have persuaded Shigeru Ishiba, the current LDP secretary-general and a potential rival in a party leadership race next year, to join the cabinet.
The 57-year-old Ishiba declined an offer to serve as minister in charge of national security reform, citing policy differences with the premier.
But after a meeting with Abe, Ishiba said he was willing to serve if asked. Japanese media say he is likely to take the new post of minister in charge of reviving local economies.
Being in the cabinet will make it harder for Ishiba to later challenge Abe.
Yasuhisa Shiozaki, 63, a proponent of an overhaul of Japan's Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF), is tipped to head the ministry of labor, health and welfare, which oversees GPIF, currently finalizing plans to boost the weighting of domestic stocks in its portfolio.
Former vice defense minister Akinori Eto is expected to take the new security reform post, paired with the defense portfolio.
Eto belongs to a group of lawmakers advocating visits to Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine for war dead. Abe's pilgrimage there in December outraged China, where the shrine is viewed as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.
Attention is also focused on the role of women in the new cabinet and LDP line-ups. Abe has made a push to get more women into the workforce a linchpin of his "Abenomics" growth plan, setting a target of raising the proportion of women corporate managers to 30 percent by 2020 from 7.5 percent last year.
Now he is under pressure to match words with action on the political front. Hitting 30 percent would require appointing women to at least 5 of the cabinet's 18 ministerial posts.
Yuko Obuchi, 40, the daughter of a former prime minister and mother of two, will be minister of trade and industry, while LDP policy chief Sanae Takaichi, 53, an Abe ally and former minister for gender equality in his first cabinet in 2006, will be named minister of internal affairs and communications, media said.
(Editing by Clarence Fernandez, William Mallard and Mark Heinrich)