Obuchi taken to hospital stricken by fatigue

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was hospitalized Sunday after falling ill at his Official Residence, officials said late in the evening.

No details about the cause or the seriousness of the illness were immediately known. Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki told a hastily arranged news conference that Obuchi’s illness was the result of fatigue from overwork due to his tight political schedule, and said the prime minister would stay overnight at Juntendo Hospital, in Tokyo.

It is not clear how soon Obuchi will be able to return to official duty. A senior official of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said it may be difficult for Obuchi to recover in just a few days.

According to Aoki, Obuchi was taken to the hospital at around 1 a.m. Sunday. Aoki said that when he visited him at the hospital late Sunday afternoon the prime minister was conscious.

Aoki said Obuchi was still undergoing medical tests and that the details of his condition are not yet available. He refused to speculate until the results of the tests are known.

Obuchi, 62, also serves as president of the LDP. He reportedly suffers from chronic heart problems and was once hospitalized in 1987. He has had no reported health problems since he took office in July 1998.

His hospitalization, if prolonged, will have a major impact on the political timetable, including the timing of the next general election, which must be held by October.

His illness will also affect a series of diplomatic events leading to this year’s Group of Eight summit, which is to be held in Okinawa in July. Obuchi has expressed an eagerness to host the high-profile event.

An LDP source said Aoki may be appointed as acting prime minister, if necessary. Aoki himself indicated that the move would be an option if Obuchi’s health interferes with his public duties.

But other LDP sources said Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and Foreign Minister Yohei Kono are also possible candidates for acting prime minister. Top officials of the party held an emergency meeting late Sunday night at a hotel to discuss the situation.

Obuchi’s illness comes at a time when his administration is suffering from a decline in popularity due to the nation’s stagnant economy, a series of high-profile scandals involving elite police bureaucrats, and the imminent defection of one of his coalition partners.

He reportedly became ill Saturday evening after concluding a meeting with Liberal Party President Ichiro Ozawa and New Komeito leader Takenori Kanzaki to discuss the fate of his tripartite ruling coalition. After the meeting, Obuchi declared that his LDP would terminate its 15-month alliance with the Liberal Party.

Political observers said stress from the troubled relations with the Liberal Party may have contributed to Obuchi’s condition.

The departure of Ozawa and his followers would still leave the LDP and New Komeito with a majority in both chambers of the Diet. However, a split in the coalition is expected to hurt the image of the Obuchi administration as it prepares for the election.

Since last week, Obuchi has been spending his nights on standby in the residential part of his Official Residence to handle any contingencies arising from Mount Usu, a volcano that erupted Friday in southwestern Hokkaido. The government is keen to avoid the mishandling of another disaster like last September’s nuclear accident in Tokai, Ibraki Prefecture, in which one man was killed due to radiation exposure.

Obuchi’s elder brother, Mitsuhei Obuchi, mayor of the town of Nakanojo, Gunma Prefecture, arrived in Tokyo Sunday evening. His family members said they have no detailed information about the prime minister’s condition.

Suzuki to Russia

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s special envoy, Muneo Suzuki, will leave for Russia today for a planned visit with Russian government leaders, a Liberal Democratic Party source said Sunday night.

Suzuki’s trip was put in doubt after Obuchi was hospitalized Sunday morning for what the chief government spokesman described as “overwork.”

The source said LDP Secretary General Yoshiro Mori decided that Suzuki should carry on with his trip after consulting with Hiromu Nonaka, the LDP’s deputy secretary general.

Suzuki is a former deputy chief Cabinet secretary.