Japanese PM falls into coma after stroke

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The Independent Online

After keeping the crisis from the public for nearly a full day, a senior Cabinet minister announced Monday he had taken over as Japan's acting premier as Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was in a coma following a stroke.

Obuchi, 62, was in a coma and required an artificial respirator Monday after being admitted at Tokyo's Juntendo University Hospital the day before. He was under intensive care, Chief Cabinet secretary Mikio Aoki said.

Aoki, who has assumed the position of acting prime minister, said Obuchi's condition was extremely severe and he was not likely to be able to resume his duties soon.

Aoki said Obuchi's condition deteriorated shortly after they met in the hospital Sunday evening. Obuchi was at that time able to personally request Aoki assume leadership.

He said officials would decide whether a successor would need to be named once Obuchi's condition became more clear.

"Since he is in a coma, it is impossible for the prime minister himself to make his own decision (about his resignation)," Aoki said. "His condition requires extreme vigilance."

Officials stressed after an emergency Cabinet meeting that Obuchi's illness would not bring any immediate change in policy. Obuchi's ruling party continues to be firmly in control.

Taichi Sakaiya, head of Japan's Economic Planning Agency, said economic policies remained solid.

"It is not possible that (Obuchi's illness) will have an impact on economic policies," he said.

But concerns were raised that Obuchi's absence could hinder Japan's ability to host the G-8 summit of the world's leading industrialized countries this summer. It could also intensify jockeyig on who might succeed Obuchi. Two politicians named were Foreign Minister Yohei Kono and Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Yoshiro Mori.

Of more concern to many, however, was the government's failure to disclose the crisis sooner.

"Why did they hide the crisis?" said a headline in the Asahi, one of Japan's major newspapers.

Obuchi's illness was not announced until 22 hours after he was admitted to the hospital. Aoki's initial announcement Sunday night lasted only four minutes, and he refused to provide details on what had happened to Obuchi.

His second news conference, Monday morning, lasted less than 15 minutes and offered little more.

Aoki, the senior government spokesman and Obuchi's closest lieutenant in the Cabinet, and other top ruling party officials met through the night to discuss the situation.

Aoki said he visited Obuchi at the hospital Sunday evening, and Obuchi verbally requested that he become acting prime minister. Aoki said no announcement was made earlier because officials did not know how serious Obuchi's condition was.

"We believe we acted with all due caution," he said. "When I saw him (Sunday afternoon) he was calm and able to speak. His condition got worse after that."

Many Japanese questioned that position.

"I'm flabbergasted," said Yoshiko Kojima, a 36-year-old Tokyo office worker. "We didn't necessarily need to know all the details, but we should have been told how ill he was."

Obuchi had been under intense pressure over the past week.

He has had to deal with a major volcanic eruption in northern Japan and turmoil in his ruling coalition. Last weekend, he traveled to southern Japan to inspect preparations for the G-8 summit, which begins in July.

Japanese television broke into regular programming to broadcast Aoki's brief announcement of Obuchi's hospitalization Sunday from the prime minister's residence. Reporters staked out the hospital where Obuchi was staying. Police cordoned off the area, and no one was allowed inside the building.

Although Obuchi's ruling coalition split up on Saturday, his Liberal Democratic Party remains the strongest in Parliament, and its hold on power is not in question.

Obuchi became prime minister in July 1998, and surprised many analysts with his ability to get his policies through Parliament.

In his first year, he jump-started the economy, consolidated his party's dominant position in Parliament and championed legislation strengthening Japan's regional security role and giving official status to the Rising Sun flag.

His fortunes had sagged recently, with polls finding that support for his Cabinet is declining.

Aoki has long worked as a quiet political insider, holding several top posts within Obuchi's Liberal Democratic Party. Previously deputy finance minister, he was named chief Cabinet secretary last year.

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