Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa shuffled his Cabinet on Friday in an effort to revitalize his party and dispel growing doubts about his ability to cope with the political scandals, economic troubles and foreign trade pressures plaguing Japan.
The move came as Parliament closed a special session dominated by testimony over the Sagawa trucking scandal, in which leading members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have been linked to gangsters. The scandal, combined with a slow economy, has dragged public support for the party to near record lows. And there have been rumblings of dissatisfaction among young party members.
Unless Miyazawa's new Cabinet can convince the public that it is serious about ending corruption, analysts say, the ruling party, which has dominated Japanese politics, will gradually see its power weaken.
There are no credible alternative parties to take its place, and Japan could be in for a period of weak government that would prevent its emergence as a more influential global force and could complicate relations with the United States on such issues as trade.
On Friday, a young "reformist" group led by outgoing Finance Minister Tsutomu Hata and former ruling party heir apparent Ichiro Ozawa announced that it was breaking away from the ruling party's largest faction to create its own political group. The split breaks the power of the faction that has controlled politics for nearly a decade and was responsible for putting Miyazawa in power.
The new Hata faction hopes to become a magnet for younger Parliament members seeking to build an effective opposition party capable of toppling the ruling party's aging leaders.
A recent poll by Kyodo News Service put Miyazawa's support at 16%, down from 51% soon after he took office, and the second-lowest rating for any prime minister in the poll's 30-year history.
Calls for reform have intensified since powerbroker Shin Kanemaru was forced to resign this fall after confessing that he illegally accepted $4 million from the mob-connected Sagawa trucking company.
Miyazawa made some efforts to give his Cabinet a "reformist" color by appointing Masaharu Gotoda, 78, as justice minister. Gotoda has no factional affiliations and is well regarded for having pushed through administrative reforms against entrenched bureaucratic interests under the administration of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.
In the name of diversity, Miyazawa broke the traditional system of seniority-based appointments, picking a 39-year-old to head his Economic Planning Agency and a woman as minister of education.
But most of Miyazawa's appointments, including those for key ruling party executive positions, were packed with established faction heavyweights, including convicted bribe-taker Koko Sato and Hiroshi Mitsuzuka.
Seiroku Kajiyama, who was credited with negotiating with the opposition to push Miyazawa's critical economic stimulus package through Parliament, was rewarded with the key post of party secretary general. Kajiyama, a former justice minister, sparked controversy in 1990 when he compared prostitutes to American blacks who he said ruined neighborhoods by moving in and forcing whites out.
Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe will continue in his post and serve as deputy prime minister. Yoshiro Hayashi will replace Hata as finance minister.