As Japan's leader lay comatose, parliament today voted hastily to approve Yoshiro Mori, 62, a Liberal Democratic Party warhorse, as the nation's 27th postwar prime minister.
Mori won 335 of 488 votes cast in the vital lower house of parliament, with the support of the LDP's two coalition partners, the New Komei Party and the Conservative Party. He carried the upper house a short time later.
A well-liked figure who has already held nearly every top government and party post, Mori is known as a prudent and pragmatic defender of the status quo who expresses few strong opinions of his own.
That makes him the safest possible choice to lead a risk-averse nation beset by economic woes and the sudden collapse of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, not to mention a large volcanic eruption.
Mori's comrades in the LDP have made clear that they expect him to continue Japan's current financial policies, aimed at prodding the world's No. 2 economy out of a decade of torpor. They want him to acquit himself with grace as host of a Group of 8 industrialized nations summit in Okinawa in July. And they pray that he will deliver the party safely through general elections that could be scheduled as early as next month.
With Obuchi on a respirator Tuesday evening, the Cabinet held an emergency meeting and resigned en masse, ending Obuchi's 20-month tenure in office.
Mori told party leaders that he would keep Obuchi's Cabinet intact to ensure continuity. He also pledged to make the Okinawa summit, which was extremely vital to Obuchi, a success and to push reforms of Japan's education system and its bureaucracy.
The 62-year-old Obuchi was hospitalized early Sunday, suffering a stroke and a cerebral hemorrhage; he lost consciousness that evening. He remained on life support Tuesday, and doctors confirmed that he had suffered brain damage, was unable to understand questions or to communicate and was unlikely to recover soon--all legal criteria for replacing him.
"We cannot allow a political vacuum to continue," acting Prime Minister Mikio Aoki said Tuesday.
At 11 a.m. today, the LDP gathered and unanimously elected Mori, the secretary-general, as party president. Hiromu Nonaka, the powerful LDP kingmaker who had engineered Mori's victory, was appointed to succeed him as secretary-general. The election had already been decided by the LDP's top leadership. Rank-and-file members did not even vote--only their applause was needed to ratify the choice.
This afternoon, the lower house of parliament voted 335 to 153 to approve Mori as prime minister. Thanks to Obuchi's coalition-building skills, Mori secured a comfortable margin of 90 more votes than the 245 he needed to win.
Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa won just 17 votes in the lower house as a candidate against Mori for prime minister, while Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Hatoyama won 95 and Communist Party leader Tetsuzo Fuwa won 26.
Mori then won 137 of 244 votes in the parliament's upper house and was formally named prime minister shortly before 2 p.m.
By law, Mori could wait until Oct. 19 to hold general parliamentary elections, but analysts said it is more likely that the new government will seek support from the voters as early as May.
The LDP hopes for a sympathy vote from the public for Obuchi--and wants to garner it before voters have a chance to develop opinions of their own about Mori, said Takashi Kiuchi, research director and politics watcher at Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan.
Because Obuchi collapsed after a vexing political battle with political rival Ozawa, voters may decide to punish Ozawa at the polls, Kiuchi said.
Ozawa's repeated threats to yank his Liberal Party out of the LDP-led coalition ended Saturday when Obuchi instead kicked Ozawa out. The Liberal Party then split, with 26 members leaving to form the Conservative Party and resuming their alliance with the LDP. The prime minister returned to his residence Saturday night looking exhausted and unwell, and he was taken to a Tokyo hospital at 1 a.m. Sunday.
"Ozawa is very unfortunate. The public may feel he killed Obuchi, that he's too much of a destroyer," Kiuchi said. "So it's an ideal time for the LDP to go to the country" for a fresh electoral mandate.
The LDP probably can count on a "sympathy vote," which gave the party a huge majority after then-Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira died in office in 1980, agreed Kuniko Inoguchi of Tokyo's Sophia University. "We have this deep, Asian, village-like sentiment when it comes to the birth and death of people," she said.
Like Obuchi, who was popular within the LDP but belittled by the media as uncharismatic and unintelligent while campaigning for the prime minister's job, Mori has an uninspiring reputation outside his party.
"To be honest, he's very ignorant" about economic affairs, Kiuchi said.
The daily Gendai tabloid reported Tuesday that it is said of the 5-foot-9, 210-pound Mori that "his body is big, but he's got the heart of a flea and the brains of a shark"--meaning he is both gutless and stupid.
"His heart is as big as his body," countered Masashi Nakano, a freshman lawmaker who belongs to Mori's political faction. With about 65 members, Mori's faction is the third-largest in the balkanized LDP. Nakano said the boss takes good care of his young lawmakers, telling them the realities of Japanese politics over drinks and often whipping out a photograph of a beloved grandchild.
No one, however, belittles Mori's credentials as a politician. His father was elected nine times as mayor of the town of Neagari and was considered the most powerful politician in Ishikawa prefecture, at the time a conservative LDP stronghold, said political analyst Hiroshi Takaku.
Mori attended prestigious Waseda University, where he played rugby and practiced his debating skills with fellow student Obuchi. After graduating with a degree in commerce, Mori went to work in the Tokyo bureau of the conservative Sankei daily newspaper. He was elected to parliament from Ishikawa in 1969 and has served in the Cabinet three times, as minister of education, trade and industry, and construction.
He has twice held the key post of LDP secretary-general.
Mori is considered a rainmaker in the education world and will probably focus on education as prime minister, associates said. He proved his mastery of Japanese pork-barrel politics when he managed to have a national research institute built in his constituency--along with housing for all its employees--in what has been a construction bonanza for his constituents, according to Takaku.
Many who know Mori say he has not accumulated much personal wealth. For 30 years, he has rented a house in Ishikawa, the Yomiuri newspaper said.
Like most of his LDP colleagues, Mori received shares of Recruit Co. before it went public in 1988--what later became a major scandal. His actions weren't illegal, and there were no repercussions, but since then, he has been extremely cautious in his fund-raising practices, according to Takayoshi Miyagawa, who publishes a who's who of Japanese politics.
Mori carefully cultivates his rural constituency. A noted sports buff, Mori is chairman of the fan club for one of Japan's most popular baseball players, Yomiuri Giants slugger Hideki Matsui, a fellow Ishikawa native.
Japan's leading newspapers today raised questions about whether Mori has enough experience to handle the country's foreign policy. Relations with Russia and North Korea will require his immediate attention.
Japan is holding talks to try to normalize ties with the North Koreans, and Mori will reportedly meet with Russian President-elect Vladimir V. Putin later this month to discuss the stalled efforts to end the territorial dispute over four northern islands that has prevented the two nations from signing a formal peace treaty since World War II.
"While Mr. Mori is seen to show his own color in education reforms launched by Prime Minister Obuchi, he lacks diplomatic experience," said the Asahi daily newspaper.
Like Obuchi, the amiable and thoughtful Mori has often been dismissed as dull-witted, but he is said to be extremely capable, a good consensus-builder and clever enough to project a nonthreatening image that has allowed him to advance through the often-vengeful Japanese political world without making many enemies.
So Mori may be just the person to implement the reforms that fiery former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto fought over, and gentle compromise-builder Obuchi hammered out.
Japanese are not expecting Mori to be a Gorbachev-style sweeping reformer, nor do they necessarily need that, Inoguchi said.
"People feel very safe with him," she said.
Times staff writer Mark Magnier and Hisako Ueno and Chiaki Kitada of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Yoshiro Mori, 62, secretary-general of Japan's ruling party and longtime friend of ailing Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, has emerged as his likely replacement. He is expected to continue Obuchi's policies and style of governing.
* Liberal Democratic Party leader.
* Native of Ishikawa prefecture on the coast of Sea of Japan.
* Graduate of Waseda University.
* Began his career as a journalist in 1960.
* Elected to parliament in 1969.
* Served 10 terms in parliament.
* Held a number of party and government positions, including construction minister and minister of international trade and industry.