Japanese Prime Minister Noda reshuffles cabinet

Tokyo — If the short-lived administrations of Japan's last five prime ministers weren't proof enough, Friday's cabinet reshuffle should leave no one in doubt over the dysfunction that blights the country's politics.

Faced with a public debt at about 200 percent of its GDP, soaring social welfare costs and additional pressure from the cost of the post-disaster recovery, the only immediate way to break the impasse was not policy discussion but the removal of two errant cabinet ministers.

Having resisted opposition calls to sack two ministers who were censured by the opposition-controlled upper house last month, the prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda relented in a reshuffle that saw five of 17 cabinet members replaced.

The former defence minister, Yasuo Ichikawa, had drawn criticism for saying he knew little about the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three US servicemen in Okinawa, a crime that galvanized opposition to the US military presence on the island. To make matters worse, he described the rape as an "orgy."

Noda's former consumer affairs minister, Kenji Yamaoka, was fired for his support of a pyramid investment scheme, despite its shady connotations, and for likening the euro zone crisis to the 11 March tsunami.

Opposition parties had threatened to boycott tax reform proposals unless the ministers were fired, but it is far from certain that Noda's gesture will bring them on board.

His proposal to double the sales tax to 10 percent by 2015 has little public support, although there is a grudging acceptance that the measure may be the only way Japan can deal with its debt problems.

Sensing an opportunity to strike at Noda's Democratic Party of Japan — itself divided over tax rises — the opposition has called for an early general election.

The voters, meanwhile, are registering their disapproval of the gridlock, just months after Japan was struck by its worst disaster for more than 60 years.

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