Former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who stood up to the United States in trade negotiations and helped defuse tensions over U.S. military bases in Japan, has died. He was 68.
Hashimoto, who was prime minister from January 1996 to July 1998, died Saturday at the International Medical Center of Japan in Tokyo, the hospital said. He had been in critical condition after suffering abdominal pain and undergoing surgery to remove part of his intestines.
His son, lawmaker Gaku Hashimoto, said his father died from multiple organ failure.
Hashimoto's star rose when he demonstrated rare toughness against Washington in a bitter auto sales dispute as trade minister in 1995. But his political career ended under the shadow of controversy.
A political donation scandal prompted him to resign last year as head of what was then the largest faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He retired from politics in September, citing poor health.
"Mr. Hashimoto had a vision of our country in the 21st century.... I'm deeply saddened by the news of the passing of an outstanding leader," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said in a statement. The statement noted Hashimoto's efforts to streamline government agencies, stabilize the financial system and restructure the Japan-U.S. security alliance, the Kyodo News agency said.
Hashimoto, a native of Japan's southwestern state of Okayama, was known for his slicked-back hair and chain-smoking. He was first elected as a member of the lower house of parliament in 1963. His policymaking and analytical skills won him several posts as Cabinet minister, including trade, finance and transportation.
Hashimoto also won praise for his diplomacy in settling several thorny issues.
In 1997, he helped quell opposition to U.S. military bases on the island of Okinawa, arranging to return to the local government land that had been leased to the Marines. He also promised aid to shore up Okinawa's struggling economy.
Hashimoto was an expert swordsman and a mountain climber, but his toughness also got him into trouble.
Like Koizumi, Hashimoto supported visits to a controversial Tokyo shrine dedicated to war dead, including those hanged for crimes against humanity during World War II. The visits triggered protests from China and other nations that had been invaded by Japan. In recent years, however, Hashimoto supported efforts to improve Japan-China relations.
Hashimoto's term as prime minister was dominated by efforts to mend Japan's ailing economy, causing his approval ratings to slump. He made a series of unpopular decisions, including increasing the national sales tax and instituting a bailout for housing loan companies awash in bad loans.