Japan's new prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, won nearly 60 percent support in the first public opinion poll published since the seasoned moderate took office, double that of his predecessor.

Kyodo news agency said 57.8 percent of respondents to its survey backed Fukuda's cabinet, installed on Wednesday, one day after he was chosen by parliament to succeed the hawkish Shinzo Abe, who abruptly resigned after one year in office.

"It's higher than expected, given that Fukuda is reserved and hasn't taken any action that stands out," said Yasunori Sone, a political science professor at Keio University in Tokyo.

The nationwide survey was conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday, just as Fukuda unveiled a cabinet largely unchanged from Abe's line-up.

Abe's support rates had slid to below 30 percent before his shock September 12 resignation, battered by a series of scandals and gaffes among cabinet members and voter anger over mismanagement of the public pension system that contributed to the ruling camp's humiliating defeat in a July upper house election.

"One thing is clear, people really disliked Abe," Sone said.

Robust support rates, if they prove lasting, would make Fukuda less wary of calling a snap election for the powerful lower house and strengthen his hand against a feisty opposition.

Fans of Fukuda, chief cabinet secretary under Abe's popular predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, have welcomed his milder style and air of competence after Koizumi's five years of combative reforms and 12 months of scandals and upsets under Abe.

Speaking to reporters after his first day in the top job, Fukuda -- known for his humble style -- said he was having trouble getting used to his new title.

"Sometimes I wonder whom they're talking to," he said when asked how he felt about being called 'prime minister'.


Fukuda's selection, won with the support of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) factions, has raised fears of backpedaling on efforts to rein in Japan's huge public debt as the struggling ruling coalition seeks to woo back voters.

Support for the new leader had been expected to show a rise compared to Abe in his final troubled days, and analysts said the key was whether and how long the high levels would last.

The soft-spoken Abe, 53, also enjoyed support of around 60 percent when he took office a year ago.

Almost half of respondents to Wednesday's poll agreed with the extension of a naval mission in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, while roughly 40 percent opposed it.

Fukuda has vowed to do all he can to push the extension through parliament, but the opposition -- dominated by the Democratic Party -- which controls the upper house and can delay legislation, is against it.

The leader of the Democrats, Ichiro Ozawa, is calling for an early general election in hope of ousting the LDP-led coalition, although some suspect he would rather wait a while since party preparations for a campaign are not complete.

No election for the powerful chamber need be held until late 2009, but a deadlock on parliament could prompt one sooner.

About 53 percent of poll respondents said they wanted a general election by the middle of next year and 42 percent said they wanted the next administration to be led by the LDP, while 41 percent said they wanted the Democrats to take power.

Some skeptics discounted Fukuda's strong showing as mere polite applause from the public for their new leader.

"This is what you call a celebratory gift. It's Japanese culture to support someone when something good happens to them," said political commentator Minoru Morita, adding that Fukuda's go-slow approach to reforms probably appealed to many voters now.

"When the celebratory mood dies down, his support rate will fall."

(Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds)