TOKYO (AFP) — Japan's new Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda vowed Wednesday to tackle income inequality and keep improving ties with Asian neighbours as a poll showed his government enjoyed robust support.
Amid growing calls for snap elections, Fukuda was braced for a showdown with a resurgent opposition which wants to end a Japanese naval mission supporting US-led forces in Afghanistan.
Fukuda, a 71-year-old veteran moderate lawmaker, donned a formal black tailcoat Wednesday morning to visit the palace, where Emperor Akihito ceremonially inaugurated his cabinet.
A smiling Fukuda later told reporters that it was "a really busy day."
"When people say, 'Mr. Prime Minister,' I turn around, not used to being called prime minister," he said.
But he started to welcome news, with a Kyodo News poll showing 57.8 percent of voters supported his government, double the rate for his predecessor Shinzo Abe in the last poll before he resigned on September 12.
The opposition swept elections in July in a backlash over scandals in Abe's government and growing concern in rural areas that they are being hurt by free-market reforms.
"I will do my best to give a solid prescription to each of the various social divides that have emerged in the drive for structural reforms," Fukuda said in a statement approved by his first cabinet meeting.
He said the government would "change its mindset and carry out policies from the standpoint of consumers and ordinary people."
Fukuda, known for his dovish foreign policy, also pledged to work for better ties with Asian neighbours while maintaining the close alliance with the United States.
"I will push for an active Asian diplomacy with the aim of even greater achievements, as the stronger Japan-US alliance and the progress in Asian relations resonate together," he said.
Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said Fukuda would pay visits to the US and China at an appropriate time. Jiji Press said Fukuda could head to the United States as soon as early November.
Fukuda, who has a dry personality but is known as an adept behind-the-scenes manager, admits he is under intense pressure to perform.
Fukuda kept 13 of the 19 ministers in Abe's last cabinet in place, opting for security to tide over tough times ahead.
"I would call this a cabinet that has its back to the wall," Fukuda told a news conference Tuesday evening. "If we do a single thing wrong, the Liberal Democratic Party may lose its control of the government."
The opposition ended a half-century of LDP control of the upper house of parliament in the July elections, as main opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa criss-crossed Japan accusing Abe of ignoring bread-and-butter issues.
The opposition is now seeking snap elections for the more powerful lower house of parliament and has vowed to scuttle Fukuda's agenda including his bid to extend the Afghanistan mission.
Western nations have urged Japan to continue the mission, with US Ambassador Thomas Schieffer expressing hope Wednesday that the opposition would reconsider its stance and make the deployment a "bipartisan" issue.
Japanese media argued that a snap election would give a mandate to Fukuda, whose elevation through backroom politicking has raised criticism of a return to the old LDP.
The liberal Asahi Shimbun proposed dissolving the lower house for general elections in January after the government compiled a draft budget for next fiscal year from April 2008.
The Mainichi Shimbun said a divided parliament was like having two prime ministers.
"The decisive battle should be fought early in order to get rid of the disadvantages of having 'two governments in one country'," it said.
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