Japan's Premier Suffers a Stroke; Deputy Steps In

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has suffered a stroke and was hospitalized in intensive care, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki has temporarily assumed his duties, Aoki announced today.

Aoki gave scant details about Obuchi's medical condition, except to say that the 62-year-old Japanese leader had been conscious about 7 p.m. Sunday, when he was able to speak without difficulty and told Aoki to take over if he were unable to leave the hospital immediately.

Aoki said that he assumed the post of acting prime minister at 9 a.m. today when it became clear that Obuchi would not be able to return to work within the next two or three days.

At a nationally televised news conference that provoked instant alarm, Aoki declined to say whether Obuchi had undergone or needed surgery, what kind of treatment he was receiving, what the prognosis might be, or even whether the prime minister was conscious.

The lack of candor led the Japanese media and some ruling Liberal Democratic Party members to assume the worst.

By this morning, speculation was in full swing here about a possible successor to Obuchi, if the prime minister's illness proves prolonged. Three candidates mentioned by analysts were Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, 63; LDP Secretary-General Yoshiro Mori, 62; former party Secretary-General Koichi Kato, 60; and Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, 80.

While Aoki might be a caretaker prime minister for a brief period, he is not seen as a contender for the top job. Aoki, 65, once was a political secretary to former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and is considered Takeshita's closest confidant. He subsequently was an official in the Ministry of Finance, and is now a three-term member of the upper house of parliament.

However, the Japanese Constitution requires that the prime minister be chosen from the lower house of parliament, meaning that Aoki would probably not serve as acting prime minister for a prolonged period if Obuchi were unable to quickly return to his post, political analysts said.

Respected political analyst Minoru Morita said that in such a case, the ruling LDP would probably designate a successor within a month to lead the party in the general election that by law must be held by October. Obuchi had hoped to delay the election until after the Group of 8 summit in July.

Obuchi was rushed to Juntendo University Hospital in Tokyo about 1 a.m. Sunday, but the event was not reported to the public for more than 22 hours. When Aoki finally did brief reporters at 11:30 p.m. Sunday, he said only that Obuchi was suffering from "overwork."

Aoki said Obuchi was moved to the hospital's intensive care unit after Aoki's 7 p.m. visit and that Aoki had not been able to speak with the prime minister since.

"It was very clear that nobody was in charge from 7 p.m. that night until 7 a.m. this morning, when Aoki was designated acting prime minister," said independent political analyst Hiroshi Takaku. "This will obviously become a problem and will be criticized not only by opposition parties but also by the LDP."

A Difficult Time for Obuchi's Party

Obuchi's hospitalization comes at an awkward moment for the LDP. The party is grappling with falling poll ratings, a still-feeble economy, a series of police scandals, preparations for the Group of 8 summit in Okinawa, a volcanic eruption that has driven about 11,000 people from their homes and the loss Saturday of one of its two governing coalition partners, the Liberal Party.

Before Aoki's announcement today, there were conflicting reports about the state of Obuchi's health. The avuncular leader is known to have a chronic heart condition, which required hospitalization in 1987. However, the prime minister's chief foreign spokesman, Akitaka Saiki, said that Western media reports that Obuchi has a pacemaker were false.

The Asahi newspaper reported that Obuchi had lost consciousness about 1 a.m. Sunday before being rushed to the hospital. There was no immediate confirmation. Obuchi's diagnosis was given as a cerebral infarction--in which blood flow to the brain is blocked, causing a stroke.

Several senior politicians said Obuchi recently had been looking fatigued, particularly as he manned a round-the-clock task force that was monitoring the emergency response to the eruption Friday of Mt. Usu on the northern island of Hokkaido.

The Japanese government has suffered a serious drop in public confidence as a result of its failure to respond promptly to a series of crises, ranging from the Kobe earthquake of 1995 to the poison gas attack that same year on the Tokyo subway, a hostage crisis at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Peru and, most recently, a nuclear accident last fall in northeastern Japan. Obuchi was reportedly determined that the government would do everything possible to prevent loss of life among the 51,000 people who live near Mt. Usu.

Policy Differences Between Two Camps

In addition, Obuchi had been involved in heated negotiations with Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa over policy differences between the two camps. Ozawa had repeatedly threatened to leave the coalition, but it was ultimately Obuchi who pulled the plug on the political alliance Saturday, saying a lack of trust made it impossible for the relationship to continue.

Obuchi had been expected to immediately begin wooing about 20 Liberal Party members who said they would break away from the party because of Ozawa's decision.

People who met Obuchi last weekend said his complexion looked poor and he seemed to be lacking his usual energy.

"He looked tired," LDP Secretary-General Mori said. "I don't think the negotiations over the coalition with the Liberal Party are connected [to this illness], but I do think it was a psychological burden."

NHK television commentator Yasuhiro Kashina said Obuchi's punishing schedule was probably a factor in his illness.

"His schedule was packed down to the minute," Kashina said. "According to people in the prime minister's residence, he was following events in the eight directions of the country, but when it was time to make decisions, he was very isolated as the final authority."

Obuchi has been prime minister for nearly two years--a respectable tenure for Japanese politics and far longer than anyone expected when he took office amid economic chaos in July 1998.

Obuchi was then considered so lacking in pizazz that American political analyst John Neuffer once dubbed him "cold pizza."

But Obuchi roared into office with an energy and a political acumen that disarmed many of his critics.

While he played to the Japanese fondness for self-deprecation by calling himself a "dull ox," his government moved swiftly to clean up Japan's ailing banks, shoved through the largest economic stimulus package in the nation's history and tried to tackle a number of long-delayed structural reforms.

The economy appears to be recovering slightly from its decade-long slump, though unemployment Friday remained at a post-World War II high of 4.9%, and anxiety about Japan's ability to compete in the fast-changing global economy remains widespread.

Approval Ratings Had Begun to Sag

Amid public dissatisfaction with the bickering three-party coalition and a series of damaging scandals that called into question the government's ability to control the police, Obuchi's approval ratings have recently been sagging.

In an Asahi newspaper poll published Wednesday, only 36% of voters surveyed supported his government, while 45% disapproved. In September, a similar survey showed Obuchi's government had the support of 51% of voters.

President Clinton, in San Jose for a fund-raiser Sunday night, said that Obuchi "has been a good friend to me personally, a good friend of the United States, and he has been a tireless worker to restore the Japanese economy and to bring Asia back from its financial crisis."

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James Gerstenzang of The Times' Washington Bureau and researchers Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno of the Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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