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Japan’s Cabinet shuffled ahead of tax debate

TOKYO - Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, removed his gaffe-prone defense minister yesterday as part of a Cabinet reshuffling aimed at winning support for a tax increase to trim his nation’s soaring debt.

Noda replaced five of the 17 ministers in his Cabinet. These included the former defense minister, Yasuo Ichikawa, who had been censured by the opposition after boasting that he knew little about the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three US servicemen on Okinawa, a crime that caused a backlash against US bases on the island.

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Other crucial posts, such as the ministers of finance and foreign affairs, were left unchanged in the new Cabinet, which was formally installed with a ceremony last night.

Such reshufflings are common in Japan when a leader wants to mark a big policy push or change in direction. Noda hopes to give new political momentum to his efforts to rein in Japan’s debt, one of the largest among developed nations. He has also pledged to shore up the nation’s underfunded pension system.

Noda wants to pay for all this by raising Japan’s national sales tax from 5 percent to 8 percent in 2013, and then 10 percent in 2014. In one crucial addition to his new Cabinet, Noda appointed Katsuya Okada, a party veteran and former foreign minister, as deputy prime minister to lead the tax effort.

Noda’s tax plans have run into stiff resistance from opposition parties, who control the upper house of Japan’s Parliament, as well as from members of his own governing Democratic Party. The ouster of the defense minister appeared to be a conciliatory gesture aimed at the main opposition Liberal Democrats, who had vowed to reject any tax increases until Ichikawa was removed.

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