Japan's PM to reshuffle cabinet in 'damage control' amid Unification Church furor
Japan's Prime Minister and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader Fumio Kishida speaks during a press conference at the party headquarters. Rodrigo Reyes Marin/ZUMA Press Wire/dpa

By Elaine Lies and Yoshifumi Takemoto

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will reshuffle his cabinet, 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.

Kishida, in office since last October, will announce his new government team later on Wednesday in a reshuffle that has come earlier than analysts had expected.

But in the month since former premier Shinzo Abe was gunned down, the Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) long-standing ties to the church have emerged in polls showing falling approval ratings as a growing liability for Kishida. Abe's suspected killer has said his mother was a church member bankrupted by donating to it, and blamed Abe for promoting it.

That has brought a rare public focus in Japan on the group, which critics call a cult, with lawmakers from the conservative LDP having previously appeared at events sponsored by church affiliates. The issue has helped drive Kishida's public support rating to below 50%, its lowest 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."

The religious group itself is set to hold a rare news conference with foreign media late on Wednesday.

Kishida is set to remove several members from his cabinet, according to Japanese media reports, with the Mainichi newspaper saying as many as seven could be replaced. A number of cabinet members have publicly disclosed links to the church, such as speaking at events of church-affiliated organisations.

Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi, Abe's brother, is leaving the cabinet, although local media reports said that is due to his health problems.

Kishi has previously said Unification Church members worked on his election campaigns. He is due to be replaced by Yasukazu Hamada, who held the position once before, media said.

Koichi Hagiuda, the trade minister, will become head of the LDP's policy research council, a heavyweight job. That appointment is seen as an attempt to appease members of the Abe faction, the party's biggest.

Hagiuda has publicly acknowledged attending an event held by a church-related group.

Shunichi Suzuki, currently finance minister, will remain in his post, government and LDP sources told Reuters on Tuesday, while multiple media reports have said Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno will also stay on.

Kishida, who has said he himself has no with the Unification Church, has said new cabinet members and party officials will have to "thoroughly review" their links to the group, a sign he wanted to take a strict line.

He was originally expected to reshuffle his cabinet in September, but that was brought forward as his support tumbled.

In the latest public opinion polls, his support had fallen to 46% from 59% just three weeks ago, public broadcaster NHK said on Monday.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies and Yoshifumi Takemoto; Editing by David Dolan and Kenneth Maxwell)