One month after Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda assumed his post, his competence is coming under close scrutiny.

There have been indications in past weeks that Hosoda, the top government spokesman, is of a lesser caliber than his predecessor, Yasuo Fukuda, who was dubbed the “dictator” of the Prime Minister’s Official Residence.

Although described as the linchpin of the Cabinet — and, effectively, the entire government — Hosoda has come across as being a lightweight.

The former trade ministry bureaucrat often responds to key questions during his daily news conferences with, “I don’t know.”

Other times, he suggests queries be directed to other Cabinet ministers — an attitude that has prompted criticism that he is a man of many words but little clout.

Fukuda, who played key roles in coordinating policies in a number of areas, exuded an air of confidence when fielding questions from reporters that at times bordered on haughtiness.

“You’ve criticized me for being (too) talkative,” a visibly irate Hosoda said before abruptly ending his news conference on Tuesday morning. He was apparently irked by articles that coincidentally appeared in the morning editions of three major dailies focusing on what they termed his lack of political initiative.

During the abridged news conference, Hosoda was asked to comment on his failure to persuade Kiichi Inoue, state minister in charge of disaster prevention, to withdraw an earlier remark that “an increasing number of women are brimming with energy,” a comment Inoue made while discussing the recent murder of a classmate by an 11-year-old girl in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture.

Hosoda asked Inoue at least twice to retract the comment, but was spurned each time. This is in stark contrast to Fukuda, who reportedly bawled out Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba in December for leaking to the media the timetable for the dispatch of Ground Self-Defense Force troops to Iraq.

Hosoda has also failed to exert leadership in getting government officials to arrange a family reunion for Hitomi Soga, who was abducted to North Korea in 1978 before returning to Japan in 2002.

Her American husband, Charles Robert Jenkins, and their two daughters remain in North Korea. Jenkins has refused to come to Japan for fear of being court-martialed by the United States, which lists him as a deserter.

The Foreign Ministry, seeking to avoid a diplomatic row with North Korea, prefers Beijing as a potential reunion site, as does North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Other government officials have said that Pyongyang’s influence is too strong in the Chinese capital.

Hosoda allowed his subordinates to express different opinions on the matter in public, prompting Soga to harbor distrust toward the government’s efforts and issue a written statement saying that she prefers a city other than Beijing.

Political commentator Ryuichiro Hosokawa said Hosoda is “unstable” and “immature,” compared with chief Cabinet secretaries of the past. But he said it is too early to pass judgment.

“After going through fire and ice, some (politicians) get better” at the post, he said. “You cannot expect too much (from Hosoda) right now.”