Japan's Noda mulling plan to appoint deputy PM

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is studying a plan to appoint a deputy prime minister in a partial reshuffle of the Cabinet on Friday, a move aimed at fortifying government leadership to promote integrated reforms of the social security and tax systems.

Noda is currently considering Katsuya Okada, a former secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, as a leading candidate for the post, government sources said.

In the partial Cabinet reshuffle, Noda will replace Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa and Kenji Yamaoka, state minister for consumer affairs. Both ministers had censure motions against them approved in the House of Councillors last year. The DPJ's leadership lineup will also be slightly changed on the same day.

The prime minister plans to have a further partial Cabinet reshuffle in early February when he will add an additional Cabinet member due to the founding of the reconstruction agency.

In past cases, deputy prime ministers were often influential lawmakers with experience in various cabinet posts, and were tasked with coordinating policies within the government and ruling party.

The most recent example was Naoto Kan under former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Kan assumed the post of deputy prime minister in addition to his role as a state minister for national policy.

Noda has expressed his firm determination to stake the fate of his administration on a package of welfare and tax reforms. He wants a deputy prime minister to double as state minister to promote the integrated reforms and to act as a control tower in pushing them through.

As the chair of the DPJ research committee on administrative reform, Okada has been putting together concrete administrative reform measures, a prerequisite for raising the consumption tax rate.

Okada is regarded within the DPJ as the most appropriate lawmaker to serve as deputy prime minister as he has had a rich political career as party secretary general and foreign minister.

To ensure that negotiations on the integrated reforms go smoothly, Noda will have no alternative but to comply with the opposition's demands to replace Ichikawa and Yamaoka, political analysts said.

Replacing both ministers is also intended to prevent confrontation between the ruling and opposition camps when the ordinary Diet session is convened on Jan. 23 or 24, the analysts said.

Noda will also replace Hirofumi Hirano as the DPJ's Diet affairs committee chairman on Friday as part of a partial reshuffle in party leadership. Given the low legislation rate of government-proposed bills during an extraordinary Diet session last year, replacing Hirano will be necessary to boost the ruling party's capabilities in handling Diet business.

Deputy DPJ Secretary General Koriki Jojima, who has gained Noda's confidence, has emerged as a candidate to be Hirano's successor.

A plan to appoint Hirano as a Cabinet minister was also proposed, observers said.

In the additional partial reshuffle of the Cabinet planned for February, Noda plans to appoint Tatsuo Hirano, currently state minister for disaster reconstruction and disaster management, as the head of the reconstruction agency. The change will see disaster management, currently under Hirano's jurisdiction, taken over by another Cabinet minister.

A plan has also emerged to appoint a new environment minister so that current Environment Minister Goshi Hosono can focus exclusively on managing the nuclear crisis. Currently, Hosono doubles as both environment minister and state minister for nuclear crisis.

Okada takes passive stance

Okada expressed a passive stance Wednesday toward plans to appoint him as deputy prime minister. He was quoted as telling his close aides, "It's something that would only happen in novels or someone's imagination."

When Noda asked whether Okada would accept an offer to serve as chief cabinet secretary in his inaugural Cabinet formed in September, Okada declined saying he had already served key posts as foreign minister and DPJ secretary general, respectively, under the Hatoyama and Kan administrations.

Some party members said that Okada would decline an offer this time, too.

Noda met with DPJ Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi at the Prime Minister's Office in the morning to discuss the plans to reshuffle the Cabinet and the party leadership for about 50 minutes.