TOKYO (REUTERS) – Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reshuffled his Cabinet on Wednesday (Aug 10), removing some ministers with links to the Unification Church in a bid to stem plunging support amid growing public outrage over the ruling party’s ties to the controversial group.

Mr Kishida, in office since last October, announced his new government team in a shake-up that came earlier than analysts had expected, underscoring how lawmakers’ ties to the church have become a liability for the premier less than a year after he came to power.

While key personnel like Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and finance chief Shunichi Suzuki held on to their posts, some high-profile ministers were removed, including Mr Nobuo Kishi, the younger brother of slain former premier Shinzo Abe, replaced as defence minister by Mr Yasukazu Hamada.

In the month since Mr Abe was gunned down, a spotlight has been turned on the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) long-standing ties to the Unification Church, with polls showing plunging approval ratings for Mr Kishida with respondents citing a need to know just how close those ties might be.

Mr Abe’s suspected killer has said his mother was a Unification Church member bankrupted by donating to it, and blamed Mr Abe for promoting it.

Musical chairs

In the latest survey, Mr Kishida’s support fell to 46 per cent from 59 per cent just three weeks ago, public broadcaster NHK said Monday (Aug 8), the lowest rating for him since he became prime minister.

“He’s basically doing damage control,” said political commentator Atsuo Ito. “What people are really watching is the Unification Church.”

In all, seven ministers who have disclosed ties to the church were reshuffled. The industry minister, Mr Koichi Hagiuda, was among them. But he was named head of the LDP’s policy research council, a heavyweight job in the party.

That appointment is seen as an attempt to appease members of the Abe faction, the party’s biggest, though Mr Hagiuda has publicly acknowledged attending an event held by a Unification Church-related group.

The religious group itself separately held a rare news conference with the foreign media on Wednesday, where its local head, Mr Tomihiro Tanaka, said the group does not seek donations from members who cannot afford them.

Mr Kishida, who has said he himself has no ties with the Unification Church, said Tuesday (Aug 9) that new Cabinet members and party officials would have to “thoroughly review” their links to the group, a sign he wanted to take a strict line.

But Mr Minoru Terada, appointed internal affairs minister in the reshuffle, has given money to a Unification Church-affiliated group, the Asahi Shimbun daily paper reported.

It also said Economy Minister Daishiro Yamagiwa, who will remain in his post, has also made a contribution to a church-related group.

Mr Terada was quoted in the paper as saying he was not aware the group to which he gave money had connections to the Unification Church and would have no further dealings with it.