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Japan premier picks tried hands. New Cabinet choices reflect sensitivity to financial scandal and foreign tensions

Japanese Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita appears to be a man in political trouble. Yet in the halls of the Kantei, the premier's office, where a new Cabinet was named yesterday, the mood is one of quiet confidence. The popularity of the veteran politician's government has fallen to an all-time low. The parliament ended a tumultuous session Tuesday, after having passed a widely disliked tax-reform package. And the ruling party has been rocked by a corruption scandal which forced the finance minister to resign.

Despite these challenges, the Cabinet reshuffle reflects the reality that Mr. Takeshita's power within the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is greater than ever. The Cabinet list, and the simultaneous selection of the LDP leadership posts, featured stability and experience in many key positions.

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The new lineup retains the current foreign and defense ministers, as well as the recently named finance minister. The top three party executives, including two possible successors to Takeshita, were kept in place.

The balance of power within the ruling party, reflected in the number of the Cabinet posts allocated to each of the five major factions in the party, was also basically unchanged.

The source of Takeshita's power is his ability, along with his faction's leaders, to maneuver and accomplish results within the complex world of Japanese politics.

In Nagatacho, the Japanese equivalent of Capitol Hill, Takeshita is the king. There he accomplished what several previous LDP prime ministers failed to do - pass a tax plan that includes imposition of a very unpopular nationwide consumption tax. He kept his own party unified, despite grumbling in the ranks. He was able to split the ranks of the opposition parties, bringing the centrist Democratic Socialist and Komei (Clean Government) parties in as de facto partners in the tax plan and leaving the Socialists and Communists out in the cold.

``For Takeshita, politics is just within the Nagatacho,'' says political commentator Hajime Takano. ``If you simply look from that perspective, there is no crisis. The opposition parties are nothing for [the LDP]. They feel very much at ease.''

Still the shadow of the so-called Recruit Scandal, as the corruption case is called, was clearly evident in the Cabinet selection. None of the parliamentarians linked to the case - there are 12 in the ruling party including very prominent figures - were placed in the Cabinet. The new justice minister, Takashi Hasegawa, immediately proclaimed his readiness to back an ongoing prosecutors' probe of the scandal. The appointments also indicated concerns about potential foreign problems.

US demands for opening up Japan's rice market are said to be responsible for the naming of Tsutomu Hata as agriculture minister. Mr. Hata is the LDP's top agriculture specialist and a man known for his close ties to the American political scene. The new trade and industry minister, Hiroshi Mitsuzuka, who also has experience in dealing with Washington, was reportedly picked in anticipation of renewed trade tensions with the US.

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Until recently, the Takeshita administration could count on a high level of public support, reflected in monthly opinion surveys, which have a great deal of political import in this consensus-oriented society. The economy has been booming, and Takeshita had disproved doubters who questioned his ability, relative to that of his predecessor Yasuhiro Nakasone, to manage foreign affairs.

But since September, the polls have shown a precipitous drop in those expressing support for the Cabinet. From a September support rate of 50.6 percent, the latest poll taken in mid-December by the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily, shows only a 31.9 percent approval rating. The tax reform was the No. 1 reason for nonsupport cited by the pollees, followed by the handling of the ongoing corruption scandal.

The left-wing parties - the Socialists, who are the largest opposition party, and the Communists - are pushing for general elections, seeking to capitalize quickly on the discontent.

Elections for the upper house of the parliament are scheduled for June, but the LDP is unlikely to allow early, and clearly risky, simultaneous elections for the more important lower house. (The LDP has an overwhelming majority in the lower house, which determines who forms the government.)

The key for the coming months, most observers believe, will be the administration's ability to restore public confidence in political ethics.

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