Staff writer

KARUIZAWA, Nagano Pref. — Who does the Japanese business sector favor as the nation’s next prime minister?

So far, Seiroku Kajiyama, a former chief Cabinet secretary and a staunch advocate of aggressive economic policies, appears to be more popular than rival Keizo Obuchi, who happens to be Kajiyama’s colleague in the same Liberal Democratic Party faction.

Despite Obuchi’s current status as foreign minister and head of the LDP’s largest faction, many business leaders who attended a two-day seminar of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai) say Obuchi lacks charisma.

As Japan takes on a key role in a borderless world economy, the nation’s business circle is becoming more concerned about foreign opinion, which will have an immediate impact on financial markets.

Soon after Obuchi emerged as a prime ministerial candidate earlier this week, many foreign media reports said he might be a worse choice than departing Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. Since he is a consensus builder, the pace of Japanese reforms may slow, the reports said.

Judging from such reports, many businesspeople anticipate that Obuchi as LDP president will drive down the nation’s stock prices and the yen’s value against the dollar. “Many of us feel that politicians don’t understand the economy. But among them, Mr. Kajiyama is clear in his policy and seems to have more influence than other candidates,” said Takeo Shiina, chairman of IBM Japan.

Meanwhile, an executive of a Tokyo-based corporation who took part in the seminar but asked not to be named said the topic is too sensitive to discuss since his company needs political support for its business. “Mr. Kajiyama understands our stance very much, but Mr. Obuchi seems to have the support of the majority within the LDP. So I’d rather not say anything,” the executive said.

Japanese-American Aiko Okawara, president of JC Foods Co., said the current possibility of either Kajiyama or Obuchi being selected as the next prime minister is discouraging to many Japanese as well as foreigners who have been looking for drastic reforms in Japan. “As a foreigner in Japan, I’d like to support Health and Welfare Minister Junichiro Koizumi since he seems to be capable of bringing changes to Japan, but unfortunately, he does not have enough support within the party,” she said.

However, Obuchi does have his sympathizers. Yotaro Kobayashi, chairman of Fuji Xerox Co., said that information about Obuchi is very limited, especially outside Japan, and that this is the main reason for such negative reports about him. “He is rather reserved, but I think recent media criticism went too far,” he said.

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