Japan premier promises change in Cabinet shake-up

Other News Materials 2 August 2008 08:53 (UTC +04:00)

(AP) ї Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's new cabinet took office Saturday following a shakeup aimed at turning the tide of his unpopularity and regaining the support of voters worried about rising prices and fed up with scandals.

But Friday's reshuffle produced mostly old-guard faces, and the opposition derided it as merely a cosmetic change and a publicity stunt.

Fukuda, who has seen his support ratings nose-dive in recent months amid accusations of bribery in the bureaucracy and lost pension records, said the new Cabinet would focus on reforms, but needed veterans to carry out his policies.

"I promise to press on with reforms, working consistently to share the same views as the people," he told reporters after announcing his Cabinet.

Members of the new Cabinet were officially sworn in Saturday morning with a ceremony before Emperor Akihito, ahead of their first Cabinet meeting later in the day.

The opposition's calls for early elections continued, however.

"What people want is the replacement of the prime minister," said Yukio Hatoyama, secretary-general of the Democratic Party, the biggest opposition party.

Some Japanese newspapers polls have put Fukuda's approval rating at as low as 20 percent, and several analysts say he is barely clinging to his job.

Top defense officials have been arrested on suspicion of bribery and tax evasion and bureaucrats have been accused of accepting alcohol and snacks in taxis whose fares were paid by taxpayer money during Fukuda's tenure.

Last year, the government disclosed that some 50 million pension records had been lost, a revelation that led to a devastating defeat for Fukuda's party and eventually forced the resignation of his predecessor.

But the prime minister continued to reject calls for new elections on Friday. Instead, he promised the new Cabinet would work to ease "the pain" of common citizens.

The picks appear to show that Fukuda thinks the key to fixing his sagging popularity lies in addressing concerns about the lagging economy, and that he is relying on experienced politicians to do the trick.

"With policy veterans, Fukuda's popularity might recover," Yoshinobu Yamamoto, political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University. "It shows his resolve to tackle pension and economic problems."

Japan, the world's second-largest economy, has eked out moderate growth in recent years but has been battered by rising oil prices and other economic uncertainty, including a U.S. slowdown that is likely to crimp exports.

But Fukuda also appeared to hedge his bets with the shake-up, offering up a handful of fresh faces ї including two women ї for voters who are itching for change.

Fukuda tapped the relatively popular former Telecommunications Minister Seiko Noda, and Kyoko Nakayama, a key figure in efforts to win back Japanese kidnapped by North Korea decades ago ї an emotional quest for Japanese.

Nakayama was appointed to oversee the abduction issue and has long been an advocate of Japanese who believe their family members were kidnapped by North Korean spies.

The families have been pressuring the government for years to take a tough stand against Pyongyang and win the victims back. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il acknowledged the kidnappings and returned five Japanese in 2002.

Noda, appointed as minister in charge of consumer affairs, has a reputation for making crowd-rousing speeches.

Fukuda retained several key ministers, including Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura, Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe and Nobutaka Machimura, the chief government spokesman.

Also added to the Cabinet were ruling party heavyweights like Bunmei Ibuki, 70, appointed finance minister, Kaoru Yosano, 69, tipped as economic and fiscal policy minister, and Seiichi Ota, 62, who became agriculture minister.