- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2008

TOKYO | Japan’s embattled prime minister on Friday introduced a new Cabinet intended to turn the tide of his unpopularity and regain the support of voters worried about rising prices and fed up with scandals.

But the shake-up produced mostly old-guard faces, and the opposition derided it as merely a cosmetic change and a publicity stunt.

Yasuo 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.

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

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

His picks appear to show that Mr. 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.

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

Mr. 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 - an emotional quest for Japanese.

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

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.

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



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