LENGTHY SERVICE REWARDED

Mori remains unproven quantity

Yoshiro Mori, who took over from comatose Keizo Obuchi as prime minister and Liberal Democratic Party president Wednesday, is a party veteran whose policy inclinations and diplomatic skills remain largely unknown.

Mori, 62, is known for his robust physical build, but his colleagues say his appearance may belie a far more gentle character, a lawmaker who prefers to consult other leaders rather than asserting himself.

Both his father and grandfather served as mayor of the Ishikawa Prefecture town of Neagari. His late father, Shigeki, is famous for once winning nine consecutive terms as the town’s mayor uncontested.

Mori played rugby during his school years and continued playing for Waseda University in Tokyo, but had to quit after suffering an illness.

He then joined the university’s debating club to help realize his political ambitions. It was there he first met Obuchi — who was the same age but two grades lower than him. Former prime ministers Noboru Takeshita and Toshiki Kaifu were also former members of the club.

After working briefly as a reporter for the Sankei Shimbun newspaper in the early 1960s, Mori started his political career as secretary to a Lower House member and was first elected to the Diet in 1969, when he was 32.

In 1983, he assumed his first Cabinet post as education minister in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.

His career was damaged temporarily when it was later revealed that he had received 30,000 preflotation shares of Recruit Cosmos Co., a real estate unit of scandal-tainted Recruit Co.

Mori’s name has also surfaced in other scandals.

In 1992, a witness quoted by prosecutors in a court trial on the Sagawa Kyubin bribery case said Mori offered to pay 2 billion yen to a rightist group in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture, to stop a harassment campaign against former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita in 1987.

In 1997, Junichi Izui, a scandal-tainted oil wholesaler, told a news conference that he had handed money to six lawmakers, including 10 million yen to Mori.

Mori has denied both allegations as groundless.

During the 1990s he steadily climbed the LDP ladder, serving in such key government positions as trade minister and construction minister, as well as the ruling party’s top executive posts. He has assisted Obuchi as secretary general, the LDP’s No. 2 position, since the Obuchi administration was launched in July 1998.

In 1998, he took over as leader of one of the LDP’s major factions, led previously by Hiroshi Mitsuzuka, a former finance minister. Rather than challenging the incumbent leader from this position, however, he chose to expand his clout within the party by supporting Obuchi.

He was one of the first of the party’s key faction leaders to announce his support for Obuchi’s re-election in a party race last September, whereas another LDP presidential hopeful — Koichi Kato — joined the race by openly challenging Obuchi’s plans to seek an alliance with New Komeito.

The main reason behind Mori’s selection as Obuchi’s successor is believed to be his loyalty to Obuchi, as well as New Komeito’s support for him as a safe leader who would maintain the alliance.

Motofumi Asai, a Meiji Gakuin University professor and former career Foreign Ministry official, said Mori’s selection was apparently made for domestic political reasons and with little diplomatic considerations.

“I met with Mr. Mori a few times while I was a diplomat, but he seemed to have had little experience in foreign relations and lacked any philosophy about Japan’s diplomacy,” Asai said.

He said he is particularly worried about that point because Japan is hosting the Group of Eight summit, to be held in Okinawa in July.

“It may be true that the role of prime minister in a G8 summit is limited because all the matters are determined through preliminary negotiations, but I’m afraid that Mori will be greeted with a sense of unease by world leaders,” Asai noted. , adding that he hopes Mori will dissolve the Lower House before the event and pave the way for a more powerful leader to chair the summit.

Supporters gather

KANAZAWA, Ishikawa Pref. (Kyodo) Yoshiro Mori’s office in his hometown constituency of Komatsu, Ishikawa Prefecture, set up a signature book for supporters Wednesday as city residents welcomed the news of his election as prime minister.

Although the mood of celebration was subdued in consideration for his comatose predecessor, Keizo Obuchi, workers at Mori’s office were busy handling telephone calls and inquiries from the media.

About 20 supporters, including Mori’s relatives and municipal assembly members, gathered at his home in Neagari, where banners congratulating Mori were hung. Mori’s mother, Akiko, said she was nervous while watching TV news of her son’s election.

“I want him to work hard to respond to the expectations of the Japanese people,” she said.

Ishikawa Prefectural Assembly member Toshitsugu Yoshida, who has known both Obuchi and Mori since they were members of the university debating club, said he would have been happier if the prime ministership had been handed from Obuchi to Mori under happier circumstances.

“I have mixed feelings because the reason for Mori’s election as prime minister was (Obuchi’s) illness. Obuchi cared very much (about us) by sending a “daruma” fortune doll every time we had an election,” he said.

Teachers’ concern

NAHA, Okinawa Pref. (Kyodo) Some people in Okinawa are worried by the rise to the prime ministership of Yoshiro Mori, who was strongly criticized last month for saying that a local teachers’ union is “controlled by the Communists.”

In a speech in Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture, on March 20, Mori reportedly said that teachers in Okinawa never teach children “Kimigayo” and oppose everything the central government does because the teachers’ union there is controlled by the Communist Party. Kimigayo was officially made Japan’s national anthem in legislation passed last year.

Isao Kaneshiro, secretary general of the Okinawa Prefectural Teachers’ Union, said he is “extremely worried that a man who knows so little about Okinawa is becoming the nation’s top leader.”

Zenko Nakamura, a leading member of a civic group in Nago, northern Okinawa Prefecture, who opposed construction of a new airfield for the U.S. military, said Mori’s recent remarks illustrate his clear sense of discrimination against Okinawa.

Nakamura said he is worried that the central government’s policy over the U.S. bases on Okinawa may now take a turn for the worse.

Inamine disappointed

Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine said Wednesday he regrets that former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi will no longer be able to host July’s Group of Eight summit in the prefecture.

“I wish Mr. Obuchi could lead it because it was Mr. Obuchi who selected our prefecture as the venue,” Inamine told reporters after visiting Juntendo University Hospital, where Obuchi remains in a coma after suffering a stroke on Sunday.

“I am very sorry and disappointed. That’s all,” Inamine said. “I still remember his voice on the phone saying, ‘It’s Okinawa, Mr. Inamine, I’ve decided’,” referring to when Obuchi told the governor the location of the upcoming summit a year ago.

“We will proceed with the summit successfully to repay Mr. Obuchi,” Inamine said.

Inamine met Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence later in the day to call for further support for the July 21-23 summit and to seek cooperation over the planned relocation of the heliport functions of a U.S. Marine base within the prefecture, according to government officials.

Aoki told Inamine that the government would do everything in its power to help Okinawa with these issues, the officials said.