TOKYO – Japan's new prime minister chose fresh faces and political unifiers for his Cabinet Friday, promising to steer the troubled nation through disaster recovery, a nuclear crisis and a lengthy economic slump.
Yoshihiko Noda tapped relatively unknown lawmakers as part of his 18-member Cabinet, including 49-year-old Jun Azumi as finance minister and 47-year-old Koichiro Gemba as foreign minister.
Both are young in a Japanese political world normally dominated by elder statesmen. And both are closely allied with Noda, who, at 54, is the third youngest prime minister in post-World War II Japan.
"They will work like loaches mired in mud and sweating to get the job done," Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, another Noda ally, said when announcing the lineup. Loaches, a type of bottom-dwelling, eel-like fish, have become a bit of an odd buzzword after Noda described himself as one in what has largely been interpreted as a self-deprecating remark.
Noda's effectiveness will in large part depend on whether he can contain intraparty bickering that has increasingly plagued the ruling Democrats. In a nod to rival faction leader Ichiro Ozawa, Noda appointed lawmakers close to the veteran powerbroker as defense minister and the chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, which runs the police force.
Noda struck a confident tone in comments shortly after his full Cabinet was approved by the emperor. He pledged to do his utmost to improve disaster relief efforts following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that have left more than 20,000 people dead or missing, destroyed much of Japan's northeast coast and is expected to be the most expensive natural disaster in history.
He also pledged to bring under control the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, where workers continue to try to cool temperatures and stop radiation leaks.
"We need to speed up and revitalize our restoration efforts," he said. "Without the rebirth of Fukushima, there is no rebirth of Japan."
He also said he and his Cabinet would work to jump-start an economy battered by the surging yen. A strong yen hurts Japan's top exporters like Toyota Motor Corp. and Sony Corp. by reducing the value of their overseas earnings.
Noda, who was finance minister in the previous Cabinet, said more needed to be done to prop up the U.S. dollar, acknowledging that he was worried about a hollowing out of Japanese industry if companies move their operations abroad because of the high yen.
He noted that Japanese companies should take advantage of a strong yen by buying up foreign businesses.
Noda's biggest surprise of the day was his unconventional pick for the powerful role of finance minister. A former television journalist from tsunami-devastated Miyagi prefecture, Azumi has little experience in economics and finance and has made few comments on key issues like foreign exchange.
Financial markets on Friday did not and could not react to the relatively unknown Azumi, said Masayuki Kichikawa, chief Japan economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Analysts had expected more of a political heavyweight for such a key position.
Kichikawa suspects Azumi got the job because he shares Noda's concerns about Japan's fiscal health and controlling the country's massive public debt, now twice the size of gross domestic product.
The appointment represents a "continuity of a relatively fiscal conservative stance," he said.
Azumi will have little time to settle into his new office. He travels to France next week to represent Japan at a Group of Seven meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors. He must then find money for a third supplemental budget needed to fund disaster recovery.
Noda, Japan's sixth new prime minister in five years, is keeping around some ministers from the previous Cabinet. He's retaining Goshi Hosono as the minister in charge of dealing with the nuclear crisis and Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano, who ran against Noda for the party leadership and is considered well connected to veteran legislators.
The Cabinet also includes two women: Yoko Komiyama as Health, Labor and Welfare Minister and Renho, who goes by a singular name, as Government Revitalization Minister, charged with reforming government and cutting waste.
Koichi Nakano, political science professor at Sophia University, said the picks were balanced enough that he felt optimistic the Cabinet would last at least a year — a solid achievement given the records of recent prime ministers.
"The neo-liberal reformists who tend to be young and in their 40s are placed in eye-catching ministries," Nakano said of several new ministers, including Azumi and Gemba. "Those youthful, new leaders of Japan are placed in high-visibility positions."
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