PM Noda backs gaffe-prone defense minister


TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda stood by his defense minister on Monday despite mounting calls for his resignation over a series of gaffes, potentially complicating the task of passing a tax and social security reform in a split parliament. Noda, Japan’s sixth premier in five years, has seen his popularity ratings slip in the three months he has been in office in part because of his endorsement of tax hikes and in part a result of blunders of some senior government officials.

Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa came under attack after his ministry official last week likened plans to relocate a U.S. Marines’ airbase in Okinawa to rape, sparking anger in the southern island and prompting opposition parties to agree on submitting a censure motion against Ichikawa. Ichikawa himself later drew criticism for admitting he did not know the details of a 1995 Okinawa rape case, in which a 12-year-old girl was assaulted by three U.S. servicemen, stoking anti-U.S. base sentiment on the island. “There is no way to defend (the official’s comments). I would like to offer my deepest apology,” Noda told parliament, referring to the ministry official’s remarks. “As for Minister Ichikawa, I want him to straighten up and fulfill his duty.” The controversy comes at an inopportune time for Noda’s government which tries to win local consent from people in Okinawa, reluctant host to the bulk of U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan, for the planned shift of the airbase to a less populated area of the island. Noda is in a bind because keeping Ichikawa would further alienate opposition lawmakers, whose support is necessary to pass bills, while letting him go would weaken his government and embolden the opposition. Noda will need opposition backing to pass a controversial plan, opposed by the majority of the Japanese public, to raise the sales tax to fund Japan’s creaking social security system and rein in the nation’s runaway public debt. Noda started out with support above 60 percent, but his ratings have steadily declined to dip below 40 percent in one survey. That marks a steeper decline than one suffered by his predecessor Naoto Kan, forced to step down in August after little more than a year in office with ratings below 20 percent.

Noda suffered one cabinet setback right at the start of his term when then trade minister Yoshio Hachiro resigned over comments seen as insensitive about radiation from the tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear plant.