Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Monday reshuffled his cabinet, changing the ministers in charge of foreign affairs and defense, among other key posts. Several members of the reform-minded cabinet are viewed as possible contenders to succeed Mr. Koizumi next year.
Leading up to Monday's cabinet shuffle, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had indicated he would name those who firmly support bureaucratic reform and that one of the members would be his choice to succeed him a year from now.
Although Mr. Koizumi won by a landslide in September's general election he will step down next year as head of his Liberal Democratic Party.
Speculation about Mr. Koizumi's heir apparent has focused on several LDP loyalists, most of whom were appointed to cabinet posts on Monday.
Best known to the public, and arguably the most popular, is the new chief cabinet secretary, Shinzo Abe, a 51-year-old third generation member of an elite political family. Both his grandfather and father-in-law were prime ministers.
Mr. Abe announced the new cabinet lineup at his inaugural news conference Monday afternoon as the top government spokesman.
In response to a question about the post-Koizumi era, Mr. Abe says he is not thinking about which member of the new cabinet might be the next prime minister because Mr. Koizumi has instructed him to focus solely on state affairs.
Another contender to succeed Mr. Koizumi is 60-year-old finance minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, who retains his cabinet post.
A third oft-mentioned contender to be the next prime minister is 65-year-old Taro Aso, who has family ties to Japan's royals. Previously internal affairs and communications minister, he takes the post of foreign minister in this, Mr. Koizumi's third cabinet.
Mr. Aso says he has been asked by Mr. Koizumi to tackle an array of challenging diplomatic tasks in the next year, including overseeing the U.S.-Japan relationship, dealing with the North Korean nuclear weapons crisis and resolving a long-standing territorial dispute with Russia.
Mr. Aso says improving relations with China and South Korea is also important, but distinct approaches are needed because the two neighbors have different characteristics and perceptions of their relationship with Japan.
China and South Korea have unresolved territorial disputes with Japan and both countries feel the current Tokyo government is insensitive about issues related to Japan's militaristic past.
Mr. Aso's appointment is certain to raise eyebrows in other countries. He has a reputation for speaking in a manner more appropriate to the saloon than the salon and is an avowed nationalist who has called Japan "a one-race nation." He has also suggested Japan attract - in his words - "rich Jews" to help reverse the country's economic direction and dwindling population.
Fukushiro Nukaga has been handed the defense portfolio. Mr. Nukaga had to resign cabinet posts twice in the past due to scandals.
Mr. Nukaga is seen as knowledgeable on defense issues, having led an LDP research panel on the security alliance with the United States, which dealt with the just-announced realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.