- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2000

TOKYO Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was on life support today after a stroke, leaving the Japanese government to grapple with a leadership crisis, the possibility of dissolving the Cabinet and finding a successor.

Anger grew over government delays in reporting Mr. Obuchi's illness to the public.

As Mr. Obuchi's wife, daughter and other family members assembled at the Tokyo hospital where he has been since early Sunday, acting Prime Minister Mikio Aoki called a Cabinet meeting amid speculation that politicians were moving quickly to name a successor.

According to media reports, a replacement could be selected as early as later today and a new Cabinet could be installed by the end of the week. Under that scenario, it appeared likely that Mr. Aoki would be able to keep the government together.

Media reports were widespread that Yoshiro Mori, the secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, was the likely candidate to replace Mr. Obuchi.

Senior members of Mr. Obuchi's ruling party met through the morning to discuss the crisis. Out of deference to the family, both Mr. Aoki and Mr. Mori refrained from commenting on the timing of the selection of a successor.

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

His wife, Chizuko, and brother were at his side. His daughter, Yuko, returned from studies in England this morning to join them.

Tokyo's private TBS television network quoted unidentified doctors late yesterday as saying that Mr. Obuchi was clinically brain dead.

The prime minister's office said it could not confirm the report, and officials at Tokyo's Juntendo University Hospital were unavailable.

Mr. Aoki said there was no change in Mr. Obuchi's condition as of this morning, but medication had apparently stabilized his blood pressure.

Meanwhile, Mr. Aoki apologized today for government delays in announcing Mr. Obuchi's condition to the public. 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.

Mr. Aoki said an official who provided incorrect information to the media about Mr. Obuchi's situation did so because he was so shocked by the situation that he was "not thinking straight."

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

Mr. Aoki earlier had said that when he visited Mr. Obuchi at the hospital Sunday, and Mr. Obuchi verbally requested that he become acting prime minister, he did not realize how serious Mr. Obuchi's condition was.

As of late yesterday, officials still had not disclosed when Mr. Obuchi suffered the stroke or when he fell into a coma.

President Clinton praised Mr. Obuchi. "He has been a good friend to me personally, he's been a good friend of the United States," Mr. Clinton told reporters.

The process of selecting a replacement would begin with the nomination of a new president of the Liberal Democratic Party. The nominee would then be approved as prime minister by parliament. Because the LDP has more seats in parliament than any other party, its president is guaranteed the prime ministership.

Opposition lawmakers were expected to resist the appointment of a stopgap prime minister from the ruling coalition ranks. They were also expected to demand an early election, raising the possibility of a lower-house election before the Group of Eight summit of industrialized nations in July. Japan is to be host of the summit.

National broadcaster NHK television reported that some LDP leaders would like to see such an election held before the summit.

Besides Mr. Mori, another name that has come up as a possible successor is that of Foreign Minister Yohei Kono.

[Japanese news reports said Mr. Mori, 62, will first be named head of the LDP by party leaders in preparation for the formal vote in parliament to elect the new prime minister. Mr. Mori is expected to win that vote easily because the LDP holds a majority in the Japanese parliament.

[Mr. Mori was first elected to parliament in 1969. He has held a number of positions within the LDP and the government, including postings as construction minister and as minister of international trade and industry. He has served 10 terms in the Japanese parliament, or Diet.

[According to Japanese law, the Cabinet must be dissolved if the prime minister dies or is incapacitated. Once a decision comes from the family, Mr. Aoki would be obliged to dissolve the Cabinet, opening the door to the process of naming a successor.]

Despite upheaval, officials said they were plowing ahead with initiatives. Talks planned this week with North Korea were to go ahead as scheduled.

Mr. Obuchi fell ill after an intense string of days in which a volcano in northern Japan erupted, forcing the evacuation of thousands, and his three-party ruling coalition started to splinter.

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

At least three Japanese prime ministers have died while in office.

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

• Geoffrey Smith in Washington contributed to this report.

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