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Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda has emerged as a strong candidate to replace Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku when Prime Minister Naoto Kan reshuffles his Cabinet, most likely on Jan. 17, ruling Democratic Party of Japan sources said Saturday.

Kan, who also heads the DPJ, will meet with Noda soon and is likely to offer the post to him, according to the sources.

Kan met with Secretary General Katsuya Okada for about an hour and a half at his official residence Saturday and discussed the reshuffle.

The prime minister had hoped to retain Noda in his current post as he compiled the draft of the fiscal 2011 budget, which Kan’s administration has to pass in the next Diet session. However, Kan apparently changed his mind due to the lack of suitable candidates to fill Sengoku’s role.

Noda, however, has expressed his hope of continuing as finance minister and if he refuses Kan’s offer, the prime minister could be forced to rethink his reshuffle and consider retaining Sengoku in his current post, the sources said.

In a bid to win enough opposition backing to pass the fiscal 2011 budget and related bills in the divided bicameral legislature, Kan is leaning toward replacing Sengoku as the opposition-controlled House of Councilors approved a censure motion against him in November, prompting opposition parties to urge the government’s top spokesman to resign.

Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and Satsuki Eda, former Upper House president, have also been floated as possible candidates to succeed Sengoku but some DPJ members have strongly opposed them as both are members of the Upper House, according to the sources.

Noda, a 53-year-old House of Representatives lawmaker, was first elected to the Lower House in 1993 and is currently serving his fifth term. He has been finance minister since last June, when the Kan Cabinet was formed.

Noda is also known for his opposition to party heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, who has been embroiled in a funding scandal, aligning the finance minister with Kan, who by cornering Ozawa and his allies is apparently hoping to stem a further drop in his public approval ratings and avoid a gridlocked Diet.

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