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Japan PM hit hard by minister's gaffe

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Tokyo

Shoichi Nakagawa announces his resignation on 17 February 2009
The minister announced his resignation on Tuesday amid a storm of criticism

Whether overindulgence in cough mixture or wine was behind Shoichi Nakagawa's shambles of a press conference, his departure as Japan's finance minister has delivered another kicking to the government's already low credibility.

There he was, the man in charge of the world's second biggest economy, in Rome for a crucial meeting of G7 finance ministers to find a way out of the global crisis, slurring and barely able to keep his eyes open as he was questioned by reporters.

After returning to Tokyo he first tried to laugh it off during a grilling about his performance by a parliamentary committee, insisting he had taken too much medicine for a cold and had only had "sips" of wine.

As the video was played again and again on Japanese television, and picked up by the international media, he attempted to defuse the rising criticism by saying he would resign, but only after stimulus measures and the budget had been passed - which could take weeks.

"I have caused trouble to the prime minister and other people," Mr Nakagawa said. "I apologise for causing a commotion through not taking enough care of my health."

But still the row did not die down, and finally he had to quit with immediate effect.

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Shoichi Nakagawa at the news conference

Economic gloom

The unseemly manner of his going heaped humiliation upon embarrassment.

The generous would perhaps have forgiven Shoichi Nakagawa for hitting the bottle, if that is indeed what he had done, and we shall probably never know.

The LDP has lost so much public support, it has lost the image of the party that rebuilt Japan after the war
Professor Phil Deans,
Temple University, Tokyo

But on his watch Japan has slid into its sharpest recession in decades.

He is the right-hand man of Prime Minister Taro Aso, trailing so badly in the polls that political pundits have had to search hard to find a leader in Japanese history to equal him in unpopularity.

A survey over the weekend put his support at less than 10%.

In a decision which will not help ease a reputation for inconsistency and flip-flopping, the prime minister had on Monday backed his finance minister before accepting his resignation on Tuesday.

Mr Aso, who took office last September as the fourth prime minister since the last general election in 2005, is looking out of his depth as he tries to face up to a glut of bad news on Japan's economy.

Iconic Japanese corporations - Sony, Nissan, Toyota and others - have been forecasting huge losses this financial year as exports of electronic gadgets, machinery and cars have tumbled.

Taro Aso (file image from 30 January 2009)
Mr Aso has seen his approval rating plummet to record lows

Factories are being mothballed, production slashed, and many people are being laid off, especially workers on temporary contracts.

To revive growth, Mr Aso pushed through the Diet, or parliament, in January a contentious 4.8tn yen ($53bn, 37bn) extra budget that includes a cash handout of at least 12,000 yen to each Japanese taxpayer.

The idea is they will go out and spend it and boost the economy.

But critics say it is a lavish waste of public money which will not work.

No support

Political wrangling has delayed implementation of the stimulus measures as some related bills are still passing through parliament.

Mr Aso is also being hampered by his own fractious party and the fact that the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) controls the upper house.

Mr Nakagawa's resignation came as the DPJ submitted a censure motion which could delay the bills' passage even further.

The prime minister must call an election by September this year, and it looks increasingly like his Liberal Democratic Party will lose for only the second time in more than half a century.

"The LDP has lost so much public support, it has lost the image of the party that rebuilt Japan after the war," said Professor Phil Deans of Temple University in Tokyo.

"People have given up on it. Its great strength, though, is the opposition is unpopular as well. The real loser is Japanese democracy."

So Mr Aso must be looking forward to a chance to escape the turmoil of Tokyo's political scene next week.

He is due to travel to Washington as the first foreign leader to meet new US President Barack Obama in the White House.

He may not get many more opportunities to pose as a statesman on the world stage.



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SEE ALSO
Japan finance minister steps down
17 Feb 09 |  Asia-Pacific
Japan's economy in quarterly dive
16 Feb 09 |  Business
Gaffes put Japan's Aso under fire
09 Dec 08 |  Asia-Pacific

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