Japan's dominant political party is deliberating over who should next lead the country, since Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi lapsed into a coma Sunday.
His sudden illness comes at a time when Japan's economy, moribund for a decade, is teetering between recovery and a return to recession. The government is this week trying to finesse a cozier relationship with North Korea without appearing to be too soft. And Mr. Obuchi's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is worried about upcoming parliamentary elections, which must be held before mid-October.
Japan's consensus-oriented leadership leaves little room for bold individual initiatives, but Obuchi reversed his predecessor's attempts to end stagnation by restructuring and reforming Japan's economy. Instead Obuchi has implemented huge spending programs meant to perk up consumers and corporations.
After initial signs of success, this strategy recently has appeared to falter, and Japanese have grown increasingly worried about the country's expanding deficit. But officials stressed yesterday that a new leader would not abandon Obuchi's approach.
"The prime minister has already set the course. We will faithfully execute that policy," Economic Planning Minister Taichi Sakaiya told reporters. Presumably the same sensibility will guide North Korea policy as negotiators from the two countries begin talks aimed at establishing diplomatic relations.
In recent years the Japanese government has repeatedly demonstrated weakness in the face of crisis. Critics have attacked officials and political leaders for overly cautious responses to the 1995 Kobe earthquake, that year's nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system, and last year's nuclear mishap in northeastern Japan.
Once again, the government appears to have been derailed by the unexpected. Acting Prime Minister Mikio Aoki is already fending off criticism from Japanese media organizations and many citizens who are irate that the government waited more than 22 hours before releasing news of Obuchi's condition.
The prime minister was admitted to a Tokyo hospital at 1 a.m. Sunday morning; Mr. Aoki did not make the news public until 11:30 p.m. Sunday night.
Obuchi's spokesman, Akitaka Saiki, says officials were waiting to hear the outcome of medical tests, but critics are frustrated.
"The government lied to the people," says Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst, asserting that government officials misled reporters about Obuchi's activities on Sunday.
Aoki, in the second of two press conferences he held Monday, acknowledged that the government would have to "reflect" on the delay. Obuchi designated Aoki to lead a caretaker administration at the hospital on Sunday, Aoki said, adding that Obuchi later suffered a stroke and fell into a coma.
No official has yet announced that Obuchi will not return to his job, but preparations are under way to replace him. Japan's premier is elected by the Diet, or parliament, but the LDP effectively selects the prime minister because of its majority in the powerful lower house.
So LDP leaders are meeting to decide when to hold a party election to replace Obuchi as president. Then Aoki would dissolve the Cabinet, paving the way for the Diet to elect a new leader.
LDP Secretary General Yoshiro Mori appears to be the front-runner. Mr. Mori is a party stalwart who has held several Cabinet positions and reportedly has the support of Obuchi's faction in the party. Mori got his start as a newspaper reporter, before being elected to parliament in 1969.
Mori would likely continue Japan's attempts to spend its way out of recession, analysts say. "Successors try to maintain their predecessor's policies," says Takashi Mikuriya, a political scientist at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
A second option, says Mr. Mikuriya, is for the party to choose former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa as its leader until the next elections, which must be held before the term of lower house members expires Oct. 19.
Officials want to have a stable government in place before Japan hosts the annual summit of the world's leading industrialized nations this July. Mr. Miyazawa, currently the finance minister, hosted such a summit in 1993.
Obuchi was sensitive to accusations that the government responds poorly to crises; recently he was personally criticized for visiting his barber after learning that a subway collision in Tokyo had resulted in fatalities.
Since late last week, the prime minister was personally overseeing the government's handling of a volcano eruption on the northern island of Hokkaido. Officials have safely evacuated thousands of people from the area.
And he was busy over the weekend managing a minor political crisis. On Saturday evening he had a high-profile meeting with the heads of the other two parties in the coalition government that the LDP heads.
The result of the meeting was to eject one of the parties from the coalition, a move that defuses weeks of dissension within the coalition. When Obuchi entered the hospital early Sunday, he was complaining of fatigue from overwork.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society