Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi says the economy is starting the year in good shape.

The Japanese prime minister says rising corporate profits are pushing Japan's economy out of the doldrums.

In his New Year's address, Junichiro Koizumi also stressed his commitment to financial reform, especially within the banking sector, which is burdened by billions of dollars in bad loans. He vowed to drive the economy higher by pushing ahead with his reform agenda.

The prime minister says the country is seeing some brighter signs and that the economic growth rate is even better than the government had expected.

However, he warned that big challenges remain including near-record unemployment. He noted that many companies continue to cut jobs to boost profits and promised to take action to get the jobless back to work.

Two Japanese companies are buying into one of China's biggest beverage businesses. Asahi Breweries, Japan's top beer maker, and Itochu, a major trading company, say they will acquire half of Tingyi Holding's soft drink venture for $420 million.

The two Japanese companies say they want access to the world's most populous nation, where bottled drinks are increasingly popular.

Some Japanese beef restaurants are scrambling to introduce new items after Tokyo banned U.S. beef imports because of a mad-cow scare.

Yoshinoya, a popular fast-food chain that sells bowls of beef and rice, says it will be forced to stop selling its signature dish next month unless the ban ends. Almost all of its beef comes from the United States.

Instead, it will sell items that do not include beef, such as curry or salmon roe with rice.

Other restaurants are hoping to increase beef imports from Australia. McDonald's Japan, the nation's top fast-food chain, has taken out newspaper advertisements to reassure readers that it does not use U.S. beef.

Mad cow disease is also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. Experts say that more than 100 people, most of them in Britain, have developed a similar, fatal disease, after eating beef infected with BSE.