Japanese PM for cabinet changes

TOKYO: Japan's Prime Minister Taro Aso is planning changes to his cabinet soon in a bid to battle sagging approval ratings and quash internal dissent ahead of key elections, the government said Wednesday.

Several newspapers have reported that the conservative premier could make new appointments, including of a popular television comedian-turned-governor, as early as Thursday.

Chief government spokesman Takeo Kawamura told reporters that no concrete changes had yet been decided but confirmed that "regarding replenishing (the cabinet), we think the time has come." Aso must call elections by September and is widely expected to go to the polls next month, when his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) could lose its grip on power that has been broken only once in more than half a century.

Opinion polls show voter support for Aso's government has fallen below 20 percent.

Several party heavyweights have openly called for the prime minister to step down as party president to give the LDP a fighting chance at the ballot box. The Sankei daily likened the party's internal turmoil to "a state of civil war." The Mainichi daily reported that Aso was considering taking on the former comedian and hugely popular governor of Miyazaki prefecture in southern Japan as a cabinet minister in charge of government decentralisation.

Giving stronger authority to local governments is a pet issue for the governor, Hideo Higashikokubaru, 51, who frequently appears on television shows and has strong popular support in his home prefecture.

The governor declined to comment on the report and Kawamura, the government spokesman, said: "I have been totally unaware of such a fact." Media reports said Aso was planning appointments to ease the burden for ministers who have more than one portfolio.

For example, Kaoru Yosano has served as both finance and economy minister since his predecessor resigned in February after appearing to be drunk at an international conference.

Aso on Tuesday dropped a strong hint that he was planning new cabinet appointments, telling reporters that he had been "thinking of appointing the right people at the right time since some time ago." Kawamura, asked whether Aso would make the appointments before attending the G8 summit in Italy from July 8 to 10, said: "An early timing is preferable so that the new ministers can go ahead with sufficient policies."