2011/01/14

Japan PM adds new faces to cabinet in reshuffle

TOKYO, January 14, 2011 (AFP) - Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan added new faces to his cabinet on Friday to help his push to restore the country's tattered public finances and boost free trade to spur growth.

Among the changes in Kan's third cabinet since becoming prime minister were new fiscal policy, trade, justice and transport ministers, but the premier kept other key posts such as foreign, finance and defence portfolios unchanged.

Kan's move was seen as a bid to appease the conservative opposition to help secure the passage of bills to finance the 2011 budget, as he looks to energise an economy mired in deflation, saddled by huge debt and burdened by a greying population.

Battling low support ratings after only seven months as premier, Kan made the changes to his centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government ahead of a tough 150-day parliamentary session starting this month.

"For Japan and the DPJ government, this cabinet reshuffle has come at a particularly difficult time," said new Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, replacing Yoshito Sengoku, who takes a top party post.

"We see a good balance of old and young. This allows each one of us to make the most of ourselves," added Edano.

Kan appointed 72-year-old conservative former finance minister, fiscal hawk Kaoru Yosano, as his new fiscal policy minister, also putting him in charge of tax and social welfare.

His brief will be to help balance state finances in Japan, where the public debt is now twice the size of the $5 trillion economy, and where the rapid ageing of the population will put more pressure on the public purse.

Kan replaced his trade minister, Akihiro Ohata, who has been reluctant to support the premier's initiative to join the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership being debated by nine countries.

Membership in the trade pact now taking shape has been strongly backed by Japanese industrial lobbies, but opposed by politically powerful farmers' groups who fear floods of cheap imports, especially rice.

Ohata will be replaced by Banri Kaieda, who previously served as fiscal policy minister. Satsuki Eda takes on the role of Justice Minister.

The foreign, finance and defence ministers retained their posts in the new cabinet, which was due to be sworn in by Emperor Akihito in the evening.

Analysts said the premier's hand was forced by the conservative opposition, which had threatened to hold up crucial budget financing bills unless Kan sacked two cabinet members against whom it has launched censure motions.

The two -- Sengoku and the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Sumio Mabuchi -- left the cabinet. Former trade minister Ohata stayed on to replace Mabuchi.

The opposition last year passed non-binding censure motions against Sengoku and Mabuchi over what it said was their mishandling of a heated row with China over a maritime incident in disputed waters involving Japan's Coast Guard.

Analysts say Edano's appointment also signals Kan's determination to drive out his political enemy Ichiro Ozawa, a veteran powerbroker embroiled in a political funds scandal.

Edano has spearheaded efforts against Ozawa, a faction boss who failed in a leadership challenge against Kan four months ago and now has come under growing pressure from his own party to resign over the scandal.