TOKYO (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is reshuffling his Cabinet in a bid to win more cooperation from the opposition to raise the sales tax and rein in the country's bulging fiscal deficit.
His ministers resigned en masse Friday to pave the way for a new lineup to be announced later in the day. Public broadcaster NHK said Noda would retain 12 of 17 positions, including the finance and foreign ministers.
The new Cabinet is expected to exclude two ministers, Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa and consumer affairs minister Kenji Yamaoka, who were censured by the opposition for making inappropriate comments.
Media reports say the new defense minister will be Naoki Tanaka, a relative of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka.
Noda, who took office in September, has seen his public approval rating slide below 40 percent amid resistance to raising the 5 percent sales tax and a general lack of confidence in political leadership.
He has said Japan cannot wait any longer to reduce its fiscal deficit and has promised to submit a bill in the next parliamentary session to raise the tax in two stages, to 8 percent in 2014 and 10 percent by 2015.
Noda said the government's priorities also include leading reconstruction efforts from 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.
Noda is also expected to name Katsuya Okada, a former foreign minister, as deputy prime minister, who is in charge of tax and social security reform.
The tax debate has created some divisions within the ruling Democratic party, with some supporters of veteran powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa arguing that hiking the tax would have a serious impact on the already weak economy.
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.
Outgoing Defense Minister Ichikawa, who boasted that his lack of experience with security issues would allow him to view them with a fresh perspective, had a bumpy tenure.
He was widely criticized in parliament for claiming that 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.
Lawmakers moved to have him censured for the remarks, and anger on Okinawa over them has complicated already-stalled efforts to move an important Marine base which is a key element in Washington's plans to restructure its forces in Asia.
Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi and Eric Talmadge contributed to this report.