Fukuda Aims for New Start in Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda vowed on Saturday to fight price hikes and boost cooperation with Asian countries, as he attempted to breathe new life into his government after a cabinet reshuffle.

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda answers questions during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo, on August 1. Fukuda was Saturday aiming to breathe new life into his government after a cabinet reshuffle that followed fears of a recession in the world's second-largest economy. (AFP/Toru Yamanaka)

Fukuda called the first meeting of his new cabinet members after they were sworn in by Emperor Akihito at the imperial palace, government officials said.

"I will firmly take emergency measures for people who are seriously affected by abnormal oil prices," Fukuda said in a statement.

"I will also carry out flexible economic management by closely watching prices of commodities," he said.

Fukuda named a new cabinet filled with heavyweights on Friday, vowing to jump-start a lacklustre economy in a last-ditch bid to revive waning public support.

The popularity of the 72-year-old centrist has plunged since he took over last September as voters have been left feeling worse off than a year ago because of rising global oil and food prices.

On the diplomatic front, Fukuda said: "Based on the firm alliance between Japan and the United States, I will contribute to the formation of open diplomacy in order to work together with Asia-Pacific countries."

Fukuda also renewed his promises to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear programmes and continue the country's commitment to "the war on terror."

Japanese dailies on Saturday urged the premier to exercise strong leadership in carrying out reforms and tackling price hikes.

Japan's economy stands "at the brink of a recession" due to soaring prices of oil and food, while drastic reform of social security, tax and state finance systems must be made without delay, the Yomiuri Shimbun said in an editorial.

"We hope he will tackle pressing policy issues head on and show bold leadership when implementing policy," the mass-circulation daily said.

Other newspapers echoed concern over the economy.

"The prime minister is standing on an extremely severe position" as the opposition, which controls one house of parliament, has repeatedly held up Fukuda's agenda, the Asahi Shimbun said, urging new polls, in an editorial.

If Fukuda hesitates to reform the troubled pension funds and cut growing national debts, "he will never win voters' trust," the daily said.

On Friday, Fukuda brushed off calls for snap general elections, which do not need to be held until September 2009, saying: "I think in the current socioeconomic situation it's the time to carry out policies."

"People's concerns about oil and food prices continue to grow, while he has to show responsible prospects for social security and tax reforms," the Mainichi Shimbun said, also calling for an early election.

In a related move, Fukuda brought his former rival Taro Aso back from the political wilderness as secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a post key to preventing any internal revolt.

"We want to pay attention to the positive impact of Aso, who is said to be popular, on his administration," the Nikkei business daily said.

Fukuda also shook up his team steering the Japanese economy, including appointing Kaoru Yosano -- who advocates a controversial tax hike to make up for ballooning debt -- as his minister in charge of fiscal policy.

Source: AFP

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