(AFP) – Jan 3, 2008
TOKYO (AFP) — Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda on Friday ruled out an imminent cabinet reshuffle amid slumping public support, vowing to focus instead on efforts to resume help for the US-led "war on terror."
In a new year press conference, Fukuda also apologised for a scandal over millions of missing pension records, a sensitive issue in the rapidly ageing nation.
But he insisted he would keep his top team of ministers for now, despite reports that some senior ruling party lawmakers are demanding a shake-up to boost flagging voter approval.
"Considering various factors, I want the current cabinet members to stay and continue working," Fukuda said.
Polls suggest public support for Fukuda has fallen sharply since he took power in September. His cabinet had only 31 percent approval in a newspaper survey released last month.
That was the same level as for his predecessor Shinzo Abe when he resigned last year. Abe quit after a raft of scandals and an upper house election victory for the opposition, which has caused legislative gridlock.
"Tough times lie ahead for Prime Minister Fukuda this year," said Susumu Takahashi, professor of politics at the University of Tokyo.
Fukuda's decision to keep his current cabinet will not boost his public approval ratings, he said.
But "even if he reshuffled his cabinet now, a boost to his support would not be guaranteed as people's concern is focused on pensions," Takahashi added.
Japan's Social Insurance Agency admitted last year to losing millions of payment records due to years of mismanagement.
"Politicians who are in a position to supervise administration must take grave responsibility," Fukuda said of the pension row.
"As a politician, I would like to apologise candidly," he said, pledging to take "every possible measure" to resolve the issue while he is in office.
Fukuda also renewed his promise to resume an Indian Ocean naval mission that provided refuelling support to coalition forces in Afghanistan. The mission was Japan's main role in the US-led "war on terror."
"I would like to get our country's fuelling vessel back to work as quickly as possible and to show Japan's stance of working hard with other countries for the sake of the world," he said.
Japan was forced to call its ships home on November 1 after the opposition refused to support an extension of the mandate authorising the mission, arguing that officially pacifist Japan should not be part of "American wars."
Japan has extended the current session of parliament by a month to January 15 to force through a bill to allow Tokyo to resume the mission.
If the opposition-controlled upper house rejects legislation to resume the mission, or stalls for long enough, the ruling bloc can force it through since it holds a comfortable majority in the more powerful lower house.
Fukuda came to power with solid public backing to replace Abe, who abruptly quit following a slew of scandals involving his cabinet and the opposition's refusal to back the Indian Ocean naval mission.
His public support has slumped amid the pension woes, a bribery scandal at the defence ministry and controversy over hepatitis C patients who became infected through tainted blood products.
The government's troubles come as Japan takes over the presidency of the Group of Eight club of the world's leading economies.
Fukuda said he wanted to take a lead in tackling climate change when Japan hosts this year's G8 summit in July.
"Japan possesses the world's most advanced energy-saving technologies, and by sharing them, we can contribute to the world," he said.
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