Obuchi’s Cabinet ready to resign

Prime Minister in coma after stroke as Aoki steps into leadership void

The resignation of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s Cabinet en masse appeared imminent Monday night as he remained in a coma after a stroke and was breathing with the aid of an artificial respirator in the intensive care unit at Juntendo University Hospital in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward.

Chief Cabinet Secretary and acting Prime Minister Mikio Aoki said it was highly unlikely the 62-year-old prime minister could return to his duties any time soon.

In the event Obuchi cannot make a decision on stepping down on his own, Aoki, who assumed the prime minister’s duties at 9 a.m. Monday, noted that he has the authority to order the entire Cabinet to resign en masse.

“(His condition) has worsened and some bleeding has been confirmed. The situation is beyond prediction,” Aoki told a regular news conference Monday afternoon.

Government sources said the Cabinet could resign as early as today.

According to Aoki, Obuchi’s condition worsened at around 7:30 p.m. Sunday — about 181/2hours after he was admitted to the hospital — and he lapsed into a coma.

Doctors at the private hospital put Obuchi on the respirator at 9:50 p.m. Sunday, Aoki said.

Following word of Obuchi’s condition, moves accelerated within the Liberal Democratic Party to find a successor.

Meanwhile, Obuchi’s head secretary said Monday that one of the prime minister’s daughters, who had been studying in Britain, was on her way home. Obuchi’s second daughter, Yuko, will arrive home today, Toshitaka Furukawa told reporters at Juntendo University Hospital.

Details regarding the prime minister’s condition after his sudden hospitalization at around 1 a.m. Sunday had been slow in coming, prompting criticism from the media.

It was not until Monday morning, nearly 34 hours after Obuchi had entered the hospital, that Aoki officially announced that Obuchi had suffered a stroke. The prime minister was moved to the intensive care unit shortly after 8 p.m., according to Aoki.

During the morning news conference, Aoki refused to reveal further details about the severity of the prime minister’s condition and only added, “It will be difficult (for Obuchi) to return to his official duties in the next few days.”

The fact that Obuchi was unconscious was not revealed to the press until even later Monday — at a 4 p.m. press conference by Aoki.

Initial reports, issued Sunday evening at a hastily called news conference by the top spokesman, revealed only that the prime minister was in a hospital. At the time, Aoki said Obuchi was fatigued from his tight schedule and would stay in the hospital overnight.

According to Aoki, when he visited Obuchi at around 7 p.m. Sunday, the prime minister was conscious.

“Obuchi told me to serve as acting prime minister, depending on the results of medical tests,” Aoki said, adding, “He was speaking clearly at the time.”

But about one hour later, Obuchi was moved to an intensive care unit, according to Aoki. “I have no idea how (Obuchi’s condition) changed after I left the hospital.”

Based on information from doctors, Aoki said, he had concluded that he should serve as acting prime minister.

Aoki said the government was handling the issue very carefully and, as a result, it had previously decided to delay any announcement about Obuchi’s condition.

Obuchi also serves as president of the Liberal Democratic Party. He reportedly suffers from heart problems and was previously hospitalized in 1987. He has, however, had no reported health problems since he took office in July 1998.

His illness comes as Tokyo prepares for a series of diplomatic events leading up to this year’s Group of Eight summit, which is to be held in Okinawa in July. Obuchi has expressed his desire to host the high-profile event.

At the same time, Obuchi’s administration is suffering from declining 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.

Lies not uncommon

The tardy release Monday of the news that Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi had suffered a stroke and slipped into a coma is not unique in the world of Japanese politics.

In the past, the government has often released false disease names when the prime minister has been hospitalized in an effort to avoid political turmoil and to protect his political career.

In September 1964, then Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda was hospitalized to treat cancer in his throat and esophagus, but the government announced the hospitalization was for treatment of “chronic laryngitis.”

The hospital announced he had “a benign tumor” in the throat, which could be effectively treated by radiation.

Ikeda resigned in November that year and died in August the following year. His chief doctor later said the lies were necessary to avoid Ikeda from learning the true nature of his disease.

In May 1980, then Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira was hospitalized for a cardiac infarction, but the government announced he had a “transient irregular pulse caused by overwork.”

The government also released a photo of Ohira sitting up on the bed at the hospital.

He died 12 days after being admitted to hospital.