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Japanese premier Yoshihiko Noda reshuffles cabinet


Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda replaced five members of his cabinet today in a bid to win more co-operation 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 Defence Minister Yasuo Ichikawa, who claimed he was unaware of the details of a 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three US 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 Mr Ichikawa was fired.

Twelve posts were unchanged, including finance and foreign minister. The 17-member cabinet was to be formally installed later today in a ceremony with the emperor.

Mr Noda, who took office in September, says Japan urgently needs to take steps to reduce its debt burden as the nation ages and its labour 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% sales tax in two stages, to 8% in 2014 and to 10% 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 line-up.

Mr Noda named Katsuya Okada, a former foreign minister, as deputy prime minister to spearhead those efforts.

Mr Noda's public approval rating has slid below 40% 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 Mr 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.

Mr 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 scepticism, with experts warning it remains vulnerable to earthquakes.

The new defence 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 Mr Ichikawa, who had boasted that his lack of experience with security issues would allow him to view them with a fresh perspective.

Mr Ichikawa's claim of ignorance about the Okinawa rape case complicated already-stalled efforts to move an important US 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 criticised for reportedly comparing the collapse of the euro to the tsunami, which was deemed insensitive to the victims of that disaster.