Japan Cabinet reshuffle appears imminent amid prime minister's sliding popularity

Posted in Japan | 01-Aug-08 | Author: Yuri Kageyama| Source: Los Angeles Times

Japan's Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda walks past his cabinet members after a news conference at the premier's official residence in Tokyo.

TOKYO (AP) _ Japan's prime minister said Thursday he will decide about a Cabinet reshuffle at a meeting with the head of his coalition partner, fueling expectation that new ministers will be named as soon as Friday.

The addition of fresh faces in his Cabinet is widely seen as an attempt by Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to jump-start his flagging public support, which polls show being hit by a series of scandals about missing pension records, arrests of defense officials and alleged bribery.

His overall approval rating fell to about 20 percent in recent months, several polls found.

"I will make the decision at the party leaders' meeting tomorrow," Fukuda told reporters on nationally televised Nippon TV news, when questioned about the Cabinet reshuffle.

Fukuda said the meeting with Akihiro Ota, the head of the New Komei party, which rules in a coalition with Fukuda's Liberal Democratic Party, is set for Friday morning. He said he had ideas for ministers in mind, but he did not elaborate.

A new Cabinet could be named in the evening, Japanese media said, without citing sources.

Opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa lambasted the move as a cosmetic change of politicians' faces.

"What people really want is a fundamental political change — a change in policies, something more substantial," he said on public broadcaster NHK TV.

Earlier in the day, Nobutaka Machimura, the chief government spokesman, had hinted a Cabinet reshuffle was imminent.

Fukuda has failed to achieve the popularity of the flamboyant former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

His administration has been hit by scandals, including a loss of millions of pension records that has outraged the public. Top defense officials have been arrested on suspicion of bribery and tax evasion in recent months.

And allegations have surfaced about bureaucrats being pampered with alcohol and snacks on their way home in taxis whose fares were being paid for by taxpayer money.

The opposition, which controls the parliamentary upper house, has been challenging the ruling party about the scandals and pressing for a snap-election. Fukuda's Liberal Democratic Party controls the more powerful lower house in a coalition.

In assembling his new Cabinet, Fukuda faces the challenge of balancing the wishes of veteran heavyweight lawmakers supporting his party leadership and a public wanting fresh faces.

Among the names being tossed around lately is former Defense Agency chief Yuriko Koike, a hawkish outspoken former TV anchorwoman.

Koike stands out in a nation where females in high places are extremely rare. Adding her to the Cabinet may enhance Fukuda's innovative image.

Likely to be retained is relatively popular Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe, according to Japanese media reports.