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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland July 10, 2017. Lehtikuva/Jussi Nukari via REUTERS

(reuters_tickers)

By Elaine Lies and Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) - Support for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, battered by a smouldering scandal and voters' perception he is taking them for granted, has fallen below 30 percent, the lowest since he returned to power in 2012, a survey released on Friday showed.

The suspicion of scandal over favouritism for a friend's business and missteps by cabinet ministers have taken a toll on Abe, who until recently was favoured to win a third three-year term as party leader, and hence, premier when his current term expires in September 2018.

Support for Abe's government fell 15.2 points from a month earlier to 29.9 percent, according to a July 7-10 survey by Jiji news agency. The biggest reason cited for not backing the cabinet was a lack of trust in the prime minister.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters the government would take the drop "sincerely as the voice of the people".

"While aiming for economic recovery as our top priority, we want to strive to solve various problems in and outside Japan one by one in a steady manner," Suga said.

The survey is the latest to show Abe's support at the lowest since his return to office promising to revive the economy and bolster defences.

Natuso Yamaguchi, leader of the junior partner in Abe's ruling coalition, the Komeito party, earlier on Friday urged the premier to focus on regaining public trust.

Abe is considering a wholesale shake-up of his cabinet on Aug. 3, replacing more than half of his 19 ministers while keeping key allies, media have reported.

The cabinet changes, however, may well have only limited impact on Abe's ratings, politicians and analysts said.

"When support rates fall like this, it becomes a negative spiral," said Nihon University political science professor Tomoaki Iwai.

"All Abe can do is take a humble stance and keep apologising. It will take time."

'SHOCK'

Abe's first term as prime minister, in 2006-2007, ended in tatters when he quit abruptly after a year plagued by cabinet scandals and gaffes, a furore over lost public pension payments, a devastating election loss and ill health.

Some experts said that for now, though, Abe's job looked safe.

"I think this is a shock to the government," said independent analyst Minoru Morita.

But Abe's support is still above the single-digit level that forced some past leaders to resign.

"There is the view that depending on his response, his ratings can recover," Morita said.

Suga said the goal of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of revising Japan's pacifist, post-war constitution remained unchanged.

Abe said in May he wanted to achieve his cherished dream of amending the U.S.-drafted charter - seen by many conservatives as a humiliating symbol of Japan's defeat in World War Two - by 2020.

Achieving the goal that soon, however, looks increasingly tough in view of Abe's sagging popularity, a key LDP lawmaker told Reuters on Wednesday.

Support for the LDP slipped to 21.1 percent, but the main opposition Democratic Party has failed to benefit.

Instead, the percentage of voters who said they backed no party at all rose 4.5 points to 65.8 percent, the survey showed.

(additional reporting and writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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