Tokyo chooses unknown to lead finance ministry

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Ryutaro Hashimoto, the Japanese Prime Minister, appointed a political nonentity as his finance minister yesterday in an announcement that will do little to inspire confidence in the government's ability to galvanise its faltering economy or to carry through a programme of radical reforms.

Hikaru Matsunaga, 69, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), replaces Hiroshi Mitsuzuka, who resigned to take responsibility for a bribery scandal among Ministry of Finance (MoF) bureaucrats. Mr Matsunaga said at his inaugural press conference: "With the Finance Ministry's credibility seriously damaged, we must thoroughly tighten discipline. If we find any wrongdoing, we will correct it, and we will take disciplinary action against those who have committed it."

Officials said his background as a former public prosecutor made him especially well suited to reforming the MoF, whose reputation as the most powerful and elite ministry has been compromised by one scandal after another. On closer inspection, however, his is an unexciting appointment which has more to do with internal LDP politics than a genuine thirst for reform.

Mr Matsunaga's career as a prosecutor lasted only 10 months in 1954, in a provincial city; when asked by reporters, his aides were unable to recall any details of his tenure.

As a loyal LDP party man, he served uneventful stints as minister of education and of international trade and industry. The key to his latest appointment appears to be his closeness to the former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, a powerful figure in the party who leads one of its biggest factions.

Mr Mitsuzuka was a much more commanding figure, who resigned after the arrest on Monday of MoF officials suspected of receiving bribes worth 5m yen (pounds 24,000) in return for warning banks about imminent inspections.