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Japan replaces Cabinet in push to revive economy

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TOKYO >> Japan’s prime minister reshuffled his Cabinet on Friday as he tries to revive the struggling economy and expand free trade to stay globally competitive.

Naoto Kan’s new Cabinet, his third since taking office last June, will aim to push for reforms as Japan faces a string of daunting problems, including a rapidly aging population, growing national debt and an anemic economy.

The most notable changes include Yukio Edano, the ruling party’s acting secretary general, who took over as chief Cabinet secretary, and Kaoru Yosano, an independent fiscal conservative, who became minister for economic and fiscal policy.

The reshuffle, which changes about third of the Cabinet posts, is largely seen as an attempt to increase chances of passing key legislation, including the 2011 budget. Distracted by personnel issues and a scandal involving a party veteran, Kan’s government has been unable to make much progress in parliament.

“This change comes at a very difficult time for both Japan and our party,” Edano said. “Our fate depends on whether we can achieve results.”

Edano replaces Yoshito Sengoku, who opposition parties for controversial comments on defense and diplomatic issues, such as calling Japan’s defense forces “a violent machine.”

The opposition bloc had threatened to boycott parliamentary sessions if Sengoku was not replaced.

The appointment of Yosano, a 72-year-old veteran lawmaker known as a supporter of raising the sales tax to meet the country’s climbing social security costs, suggests Kan is intent on tackling Japan’s bulging national debt, nearly twice the country’s GDP.

Yosano, an independent, held a number of senior government posts under the former Liberal Democratic Party government, and is viewed as someone who could foster consensus across party lines. He’s also in charge of gender equality and population.

He replaces Banri Kaieda, an economist and supporter of free-trade zones, who was shifted to economy and trade minister, reflecting Kan’s push to achieve his goal of opening the country by expanding free-trade deals.

Tokyo is considering whether to join a U.S.-backed free-trade zone called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which nine countries are negotiating. Business leaders say Japan must join the TPP or suffer a competitive disadvantage, but farmers are opposed because of worries that cheaper imports would ruin them.

Other key Cabinet members, including Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, were retained.

Opposition LDP Secretary General Tadamori Oshima compared the reshuffle to a musical chair, calling the new lineup “the runaround Cabinet with no talent.”

Kan has faced criticism from fellow party members that his administration was failing to tackle urgent problems confronting Japan.

“We are standing on the edge of a cliff and I must work hard,” said newly appointed Justice Minister Satsuki Eda.

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