Japan's cabinet resigns with ailing PM

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Japan's Cabinet has resigned, opening the way for the ruling party's second-in-command to replace Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who has been in a coma for three days after suffering a stroke.

With Obuchi's ruling party firmly in control, the changes were not expected to lead to any significant alterations in the nation's basic political or economic policies.

But acting Prime Minister Mikio Aoki convened an emergency Cabinet meeting to accept the resignations on Tuesday because it had become clear Obuchi, who is under intensive care and being kept alive on a respirator, would not be able to resume his duties.

"We cannot allow a political vacuum to form," Aoki said in announcing the resignations.

Events were expected to move quickly.

Yoshiro Mori, the ruling party's secretary-general, was expected to be named prime minister early Wednesday, and a new Cabinet - with Obuchi as the only change - could be formally installed by the end of the day.

The Cabinet resignations were needed to begin the formal process of replacing Obuchi, who is 62. With that out of the way, a ruling Liberal Democratic Party official said, LDP members in Parliament were to vote Wednesday morning on a party president to replace Obuchi.

The LDP president would then be put up for the approval of Parliament as prime minister early Wednesday afternoon, and was assured of getting it because of the LDP's majority.

Aoki said there was no change in Obuchi's condition, and denied reports that Obuchi was brain dead. Obuchi's wife, Chizuko, and his brother were at his side at the heavily guarded Juntendo Hospital. His daughter, Yuko, returned from studies in England Tuesday to join them.

Senior members of the ruling party met throughout the day to discuss the succession. After convening a Cabinet meeting, Aoki vowed he would not let Obuchi's absence halt government business.

Party members said the natural choice would be Mori, a former journalist and veteran politician with a solid power base.

Mori, who like Obuchi is also 62, has refused to comment on the prospect of becoming Japan's next leader. But he said he supports the decision to fill the vacuum left by Obuchi's collapse.

"We should not allow any delay in our national policy," Mori said. "Thinking of Prime Minister Obuchi, it's a very painful decision. But we shouldn't be carried away with emotions."

Japan's media also called Tuesday for quick action to ease the succession crisis.

"The prime minister holds the final responsibility for our nation's politics," said an editorial in the conservative Yomiuri, Japan's largest newspaper. "If he cannot perform his duties, the effect on domestic politics and international affairs is serious."

The crisis came as a volcanic eruption in northern Japan has left 13,000 people in emergency shelters. Concerns were also being raised about the LDP's ruling alliance.

Just before Obuchi's stroke, the smaller of two parties that have joined the LDP in a ruling coalition announced it was splitting off. The loss doesn't seriously threaten the Liberal Democrats' power, but could make it more difficult for them to pass legislation.

Though unable to block it, opposition lawmakers were expected to resist the appointment of a stopgap prime minister from the ruling coalition ranks. They were summit, which Japan is to host.

Obuchi, 62, was hospitalized early Sunday after complaining of fatigue. His condition deteriorated rapidly, and Aoki announced on Monday that Obuchi had suffered a stroke and was in a coma.

Aoki has come under heavy criticism for failing to disclose the crisis for almost a full day. The government waited nearly 24 hours to announce that he had been hospitalized, and left the public in the dark about the seriousness of his condition for 12 more hours.

Aoki apologized Tuesday for false reports that Obuchi had gone to bed as usual Saturday night. He said the official who provided the media with the incorrect information did so because he was so shocked that he was "not thinking straight."

"We will be careful in the future," Aoki said.

But Aoki has defended his decision not to provide more prompt information.

He said that when he visited Obuchi at the hospital Sunday, and Obuchi verbally asked that he become acting prime minister, he did not realize how serious Obuchi's condition was.

Obuchi became prime minister in July 1998 and proved an effective leader, helping stimulate the economy, boosting his party's dominant position in Parliament and pushing legislation strengthening Japan's regional security role and giving official status to the Rising Sun flag.

Four Japanese prime ministers have fallen ill while in office. Three have died.

Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira, also of the Liberal Democratic Party, died of a heart attack in 1980. Two prime ministers were assassinated before World War II: Takashi Hara in 1921 and Tsuyoshi Inukai in 1932.