- Voter support slumps over party's ties to church
- Shake-up comes earlier than analysts had expected
- Church defends its right to participate in politics
- Kishida only chose ministers who will "review" ties to the group
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reshuffled his cabinet on Wednesday, as he battled growing public anger about his party's longstanding links to the Unification Church that has battered his approval ratings.
The issue has deepened into a major liability for Kishida, who told a news conference he had no ties to the church and that the organisation - which critics call a cult - had not influenced policy of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
The cabinet shake-up 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. The shake-up has become the most visible fall-out from the killing of former premier Shinzo Abe last month.
Abe's suspected killer has said his mother was a Unification Church member bankrupted by donating to it, and blamed Abe for promoting the group.
"We need to respect the freedom of religion but it's only natural that these groups need to obey laws and be dealt with if they veer from them," Kishida said.
"I have no connection with the church as far as I know," he said.
Even as the LDP has sought to distance itself from the church, with a top official vowing this week to sever ties, the church defended its right to participate in politics, holding a rare news conference.
The church, founded in South Korea in the 1950s and known for its mass weddings, has come in for criticism on various issues including how it raises funds.
Some key cabinet members, such as the foreign and finance ministers, retained their posts, but among the high-profile ministers removed was Abe's younger brother, Nobuo Kishi, who had been defence minister.
Kishida said he chose experienced ministers to deal with numerous crises, but only those who agreed to "review" their ties with the group in order to regain public trust.
He said that politicians do meet with many people in the course of their jobs, but that when it comes to problematic groups they need to break off connections.
In the latest survey, Kishida's support had fallen to 46% from 59% just three weeks ago, public broadcaster NHK said on Monday, for his lowest rating since becoming prime minister last October.
"Criticism over the Unification Church caused a big drop in public support for the administration and stopping that decline was a big reason for bringing forward the reshuffle of the cabinet and major party positions," said Shigenobu Tamura, a political commentator who previously worked for the LDP.
In all, seven ministers who had disclosed ties to the church were reshuffled, Tamura said.