Japan PM tested as ministers censured

TOKYO - Two Japanese ministers were censured Friday, but seemed to have escaped with their jobs - for now - in a day that nevertheless dealt a blow to the three-month old premiership of Yoshihiko Noda.

Less than 100 days after stepping through the revolving door of leadership, Noda ended the year's final parliamentary session with a less-than ringing endorsement of two of his cabinet.

The censures on Defence Minister Yasuo Ichikawa and Kenji Yamaoka, the minister for consumer affairs, are non-binding, but the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has threatened to boycott parliament from January if the pair stay in place.

The boycott would paralyse parliament and leave Noda's legislative programme deadlocked.

The opposition-controlled upper house slapped down Ichikawa for a series of gaffes that riled the people of Okinawa, reluctant hosts to a large US military presence.

Yamaoka was admonished for alleged ties with shady business groups.

"It is clear that Defence Minister Ichikawa... is threatening Japan's national security and damaging the national interest by his irresponsible words and attitudes," the motion said.

"In addition, the judgement by Prime Minister Noda has to be questioned as he selected a minister with so many problems."

The opposition has made it clear that it wants heads to roll.

"It will not be a benefit to the Japanese people if they retain their jobs," said Masashi Waki, a senior LDP member in charge of parliamentary affairs, about the two ministers.

But speaking later at a press conference, the prime minister appeared - for the time being, at least - to be standing by his men.

Noda said it was "very regrettable" that one chamber of parliament had moved to censure his ministers.

He gave no indication that he intended immediately to fire them.

"I want the ministers to reflect on themselves and to carry out their tasks to the best of their ability."

But with legislative standstill a real possibility, Noda's hand may be forced during the closed session, with a cabinet reshuffle that quietly drops the men one possible solution to the impasse.

Japanese prime ministers - of which Noda is the sixth in five years - are frequently undone by campaigns of attrition.

Opponents, from both inside and outside their own party, chip away at their authority by targeting individual ministers until the man in the top job is fatally undermined.

Opposition groups claimed a very early, and probably unexpected, scalp eight days into Noda's administration when economy, trade and industry minister Yoshio Hachiro was forced to resign after calling an area near the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant a "town of death".

The loss of two more ministers at a relatively early stage in his prime ministerial career, although not terminal, would prove damaging to Noda.

Ichikawa found himself in trouble after an official under his aegis made an ill-advised remark during a drinking session with journalists on plans to relocate a US military base on the tropical island of Okinawa.

The official was dismissed after likening the government's foot-dragging on the plan to forewarning a woman of the intention to rape her.

Despite acting quickly on the issue, Ichikawa shot himself in the foot when he claimed not to know the details of the 1995 rape by three US servicemen of a 12-year-old girl, an incident that became emblematic of Okinawans' resentment of the heavy US presence on the island.

At a press conference, he then made matters worse by calling the rape a "sexual orgy incident".

The motion before lawmakers Friday questioned Ichikawa's qualification for the role of defence minister, doubts he himself raised when he called himself a "layman" on national security immediately after his appointment to the post.

Ichikawa said at a Friday press conference that he had no wish to leave his post. "I have to seriously reflect on what brought about this situation, but I would like to fulfil my duty as defence minister," he told reporters. "My wish has not changed."