TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda replaced five members of his Cabinet on Friday in a bid to win more cooperation from the opposition to raise the sales tax and rein in the country's bulging fiscal deficit.
Two of the removed ministers had been censured by the opposition, including former Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa, who claimed he was unaware of the details of a 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen on the island of Okinawa — an incident that continues to deeply impact local support for the large American troop presence there.
The opposition, which controls the less powerful upper house of parliament, had threatened to reject any discussion about key tax legislation unless Ichikawa was fired.
Twelve posts were unchanged, including finance and foreign minister. The 17-member Cabinet was to be formally installed later Friday in a ceremony with the emperor.
Noda, who took office in September, says Japan urgently needs to take steps to reduce its debt burden as the nation ages and its labor force shrinks, putting a greater burden on the social security and tax systems. He has promised to submit a bill in the next parliamentary session to raise the 5 percent sales tax in two stages, to 8 percent in 2014 and to 10 percent by 2015.
The reshuffle will "strengthen our government to tackle the major policy goal of social security and tax reforms," Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said in announcing the new lineup.
Noda named Katsuya Okada, a former foreign minister, as deputy prime minister to spearhead those efforts.
Noda's public approval rating has slid below 40 percent amid resistance to raising the sales tax and a general lack of confidence in political leadership in Japan, which has seen a new prime minister every year for the past six years.
Japan's divided parliament makes it difficult for Noda to pass legislation. The tax issue has also divided the ruling Democratic party, with powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa and his supporters arguing that raising taxes would hurt the already weak economy.
Noda has said his government's priorities also include leading reconstruction efforts after last March's devastating tsunami and bringing "rebirth" to the area around the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. The government declared a month ago that the plant is essentially stable despite widespread skepticism, with experts warning it remains vulnerable to earthquakes.
The new defense minister, Naoki Tanaka, is a relative of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, one of Japan's most powerful politicians who was felled by a corruption scandal. He is replacing Ichikawa, who had boasted that his lack of experience with security issues would allow him to view them with a fresh perspective.
Ichikawa's claim of ignorance about the Okinawa rape case complicated already-stalled efforts to move an important U.S. Marine base which is a key element in Washington's plans to restructure its forces in Asia.
Jin Matsubara will replace consumer affairs minister Kenji Yamaoka, who was censured for making comments in support of a pyramid marketing scheme, perceived as shady in Japan. He was also criticized for reportedly comparing the collapse of the euro to the tsunami, which was deemed insensitive to the victims of that disaster.
A Kyodo News agency poll on Jan. 7-8 showed public support for Noda's Cabinet fell to 35.7 percent from 44.6 percent in December, with three-quarters of respondents citing an insufficient explanation of the tax hike plan. However, some experts say such polls — and by extension the media — wield too much influence in determining a prime minister's longevity.
They say the absolute nature of the polls' top question — do you approve of the Cabinet's performance, yes or no — makes it very hard for leaders to stay popular. If people are the least bit dissatisfied with the government, it's easy to respond in the negative, they say.
Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi and Eric Talmadge contributed to this report.