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Japanese Cabinet shaken up to tackle big problems

By Geoffrey MurraySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 1, 1981



Tokyo

Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, in reshuffling his Cabinet, has gone for veteran politicians in key posts tackling the mounting international trade and domestic economic problems.

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The Japanese political version of ''musical chairs'' is a regular event every year or so for the Liberal Democratic Party that has held power for the past three decades.

But this particular reorganization of Cabinet and party posts had more than usual significance because of the number of crucial issues, especially trade friction, on which the Suzuki government is now seeking answers.

Latest estimates say that by the end of the current fiscal year next March, the Japanese surplus with the United States could be anywhere from $15 to $20 billion, plus another $10 to $15 billion with the European Community.

The outging ministerial team failed to provide any ready answers to this seemingly chronic problem, placing a heavy expectation on the scheduled Cabinet reshuffle to produce the necessary miracle.

Two of the more ministerial posts most directly involved in the issue were left untouched, however.

Michio Watanabe continues as finance minister and Toshio Komoto stays on as director general of the Economic Planning Agency.

However, Yoshio Sakurauchi was brought in as foreign minister to replace Sunao Sonoda, the target of considerable criticism for ill-considered remarks that were regarded as detrimental to Japan's relations with some of its allies, particularly the United States and South Korea.

Mr. Sonoda had only held the post since last May, coming in as a pinch hitter for Masayoshi Ito, who quit in an argument with Suzuki - ostensibly over the wording of a US-Japan summit communique.

The other major change was at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), where incumbent Rokusuke Tanaka was moved over to a party post to make way for Shintaro Abe.

Mr. Sakurauchi, with little direct diplomatic experience, was rewarded for his role as the Liberal Democrats' secretary-general in masterminding last year's sweeping general election victory.

He told reporters: ''In cooperation with other ministers I would like to open the Japanese market and maintain a balanced trade on the basis of expansion rather than curbs.''

Political analysts point out the Sakurauchi has longstanding close ties with business leaders here, which could prove helpful in gaining their approval of any political settlement of trade problems.

In addition, he has demonstrated skill in calm diplomacy by healing rifts in recent years within the perennially squabbling Liberal Democratic Party which holds out hope he can do the same when it comes to placating American and European government officials breathing fire over the dominant trade issue.

Mr. Abe is considered a rising party star who could one day gain the premiership. His previous ministerial experience was at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries - good training for the MITI post as both require a delicate balancing act between domestic vested interests and Japan's relations with key trading partners.

A key role could be played by Mr. Komoto, who wants to solve the trade surplus problem by stimulating domestic demand, and turning the business world's attention away to some extent from export drives, while also encouraging the import of manufactured goods from the US and Europe in particular.

The EPA director general told reporters he would urgently consult with other ministries on ways to achieve this objective.

But most observers doubt anything can achieved before early next year at the earliest.