Old guard Obuchi stalwart takes helm in Japan

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The Independent Online

Acting Prime Minister Mikio Aoki rose to power in much the same way his boss did: by quietly working up the ranks in Japan's faction-based political system.

Aoki, who took temporary control of the government Monday after Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi suffered a stroke, was largely unknown in Japan until becoming chief Cabinet secretary last October.

But he had been no stranger to political power.

Aoki, 65, comes from the same part of Japan - Shimane Prefecture - as Liberal Democratic Party powerbroker Noburu Takeshita, and started working as Takeshita's personal secretary in 1958.

Takeshita eventually became the leader of the largest faction in the ruling LDP, and served as prime minister in the late 1980s. Despite recent illness, Takeshita is still considered influential.

Aoki had played his cards right: Obuchi inherited leadership of Takeshita's faction, and when the prime minister needed someone to lead his Cabinet last year, Aoki got the call.

Despite those connections, Aoki was not immediately seen as a serious successor should Obuchi be unable to return to work.

"He has seen a lot because he was working for someone at the center of power," said Minoru Tada, political commentator. "But I don't think he can make political decisions."

Aoki's career in some ways mirrors that of Obuchi. When Obuchi took office in 1998, he was seen as political unknown whose most famous role had been to announce the name of the reign of Emperor Akihito in 1989.

For Aoki, the new high-profile Cabinet position, with televised press conferences held daily, was a sudden change of pace.

Despite ties to Takeshita, he had toiled in obscurity for five terms in the Shimane prefectural assembly and did not appear on the national stage until he won a seat in the upper house of Parliament in 1986.

Even after that he had a low profile, concentrating on fisheries and agricultural affairs, all the while assuming secondary leadership positions with the LDP.

His highest position before becoming chief cabinet secretary was deputy finance minister.