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Japan ministers axed as PM pushes tax hike

TOKYO -- Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda sacked five members of his cabinet Monday, bowing to opposition demands for ministerial scalps as he sought cross-party support for a crucial tax hike.

As he announced the rejig Noda called on the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to back a bill that would eventually double sales tax in an attempt to tackle Japan's debt mountain, currently twice its GDP.

“I decided to reshuffle and strengthen the cabinet so as to create an environment that enables progress in issues including an overall reform of social security and tax,” Noda told reporters.

Noda has staked his premiership on the sales tax, a move international bodies, academics and journalists all agree is a sensible measure in the battle to plug the gaping hole in the budget.

Noda has failed to secure the backing of one of his own party's key figures and has instead been left trying to placate an opportunist opposition.

Ichiro Ozawa, a powerbroker who leads around 100 lawmakers in Noda's own Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), has set his stall firmly against the tax rise, which he sees as politically unacceptable.

Some of Monday's sackings were part of the price Noda must pay if he wants cross-party backing for his bill.

“I call for all the politicians, on both sides of the house, to take these proposals seriously,” he said, adding the tax bill would come before the lower house before the parliamentary session ends on June 21.

Defence minister Naoki Tanaka and transport minister Takeshi Maeda lost their jobs after both being censured by the opposition-controlled upper house in April.

Noda named Takushoku University professor Satoshi Morimoto, a well-known polemicist and regular on television talk shows, as new defence minister, while the new transport minister will be his party's chief of upper house affairs Yuichiro Hata.

Morimoto is the first non-parliamentarian in a Noda cabinet.

An advocate of a closer security alliance with the United States, Morimoto has said Japan's Self-Defense Forces should actively participate in peacekeeping missions abroad, an often sensitive issue in Japan.

To supplement an expected decline in the U.S. military presence in Okinawa when U.S. Marines relocate to Guam, Hawaii and Australia, Japan should “make efforts in defence of its southwestern” region to maintain a deterrent against unpredictable North Korea and increasingly assertive China, he has said.

Noda also sacked agriculture minister Michihiko Kano, whose involvement — albeit at several steps removed — in a spy scandal that allegedly saw sensitive documents passed to a Chinese diplomat, has proved an embarrassment.

Justice minister Toshio Ogawa, who has been criticised by the LDP for consulting horse racing websites on his mobile phone during a parliamentary session, and postal services Minister Shozaburo Jimi were also removed.

Noda promoted vice agriculture minister Akira Gunji and vice judicial affairs minister Makoto Taki, while vice reconstruction minister Tadahiro Matsushita was given the postal services portfolio.

Matsushita is from the centre-left DPJ's junior coalition partner, the People's New Party.

Noda stressed Monday that “making an agreement with the largest opposition LDP is the most important” thing in enacting a tax hike bill, but stopped short of offering the opposition any kind of grand coalition.

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