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Jul 10, 7:31 AM EDT

Japan's leader sees popularity sink, seeks Cabinet shuffle



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TOKYO (AP) -- With his government's approval ratings sinking to their lowest level since he returned to power in 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he will reshuffle his Cabinet next month as he looks to rebound from his party's recent crushing defeat in Tokyo municipal elections.

Results published Monday from a weekend poll by the liberal Asahi newspaper showed support for Abe's Cabinet at 33 percent, down seven points from a week earlier, while disapproval stood at 47 percent, up five points. Polls by the conservative Yomiuri newspaper and NTV, both known as pro-Abe, as well as public broadcaster NHK showed similar results.

Experts say a slew of scandals, including a major one involving Abe, and the railroading of key legislation have hurt the prime minister's popularity, leading to his Liberal Democratic Party's heavy losses in the July 2 Tokyo assembly elections.

According to the Yomiuri poll, which was taken July 7-9, support for Abe's government fell to 36 percent, down 13 points from mid-June, while disapproval rose to 52 percent, from 41 percent. NTV's poll showed support fell to 32 percent, while NHK's showed it dropped to 35 percent.

"The size of the decline is shocking," the Yomiuri said, citing the 61 percent support that Abe's government had just two months ago. "While Prime Minister Abe repeats 'deep regret,' the public's distrust is growing more than ever."

Abe, traveling in Europe after the G-20 summit, told reporters Sunday that he would reshuffle his Cabinet in early August. The Cabinet is expected to replace some of the ministers criticized for problematic remarks and scandals.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada is among those expected to be removed. Inada most recently came under fire over her remark at an election rally in which she sought support from her ministry and the Self-Defense Force for a ruling party candidate, allegedly violating laws stipulating neutrality of civil servants and the military.

In the absence of significant center-left alternatives and strong rivals in his party, Abe's tenure as prime minister is not under immediate threat. But Abe - in his second stint as prime minister, having previously served in 2006 and 2007 - now has to watch out for any development in a major ongoing scandal in which he is alleged to have helped a friend gain government approval for his new veterinary school.

On Monday, a former top education ministry bureaucrat told a parliamentary hearing that Abe's office had significant influence over the school approval. Though Abe was not present, the hearing was apparently a compromise by his party, which has repeatedly refused to hold one, following the July 2 election defeat.

"The decision-making process was in parts extremely unfair and murky," Kihei Maekawa, former vice education minister, said Monday. "Clearly there was an influence by the Prime Minister's Office."

Maekawa said an Abe aide urged him to speed up the approval to meet the targeted school opening of April 2018, adding that he was speaking on behalf of Abe because "the prime minister cannot say this from his own mouth."

Officials in Abe's government denied distorting the approval process, saying it was part of their deregulation effort.

The veterinary school scandal is the second alleging that Abe or people close to him sought to influence the opening of new schools. Earlier, Abe's wife, Akie, was alleged to have used her influence in a school opening for an ultra-nationalistic Osaka educational group that she was closely associated with.

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