Speculation has not abated over the health of former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, who has been hospitalized for nearly a month due to what was described by his aides as back pain.

Four weeks have passed since Takeshita, 75, entered the Tokyo hospital. Initially, his office said he would be hospitalized for “a few weeks.”

Reflecting Takeshita’s lingering influence over Japanese politics, rumors have surfaced that his illness may be more serious than publicly explained, which could affect plans by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi — one of Takeshita’s closest disciples — to seek re-election as Liberal Democratic Party president later this year.

Questions over Takeshita’s health have been further fueled by the refusal of his aides to divulge the name of the hospital or to allow anyone to visit him.

Takeshita’s office even declined a request from former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to see him. Hashimoto belonged to an LDP faction founded by Takeshita and now led by Obuchi.

According to the aides, Takeshita is suffering from spondylitis deformans, a spinal deformation caused by aging that pressures the nervous system and causes back pain and paralysis in the limbs.

The aides said Takeshita is merely receiving traction treatment, adding that he refuses to meet people because visits by politicians would cause trouble for the hospital. They said Takeshita merely decided to stay at the hospital “because he would have nothing to do back at home during the Golden Week holidays.”

Whatever the state of Takeshita’s health, LDP factions are drawing a new political landscape without his presence on the assumption that he may need to be hospitalized for a substantial period of time.

Although a decade has passed since he stepped down as prime minister amid the Recruit stock-for-favors scandal, Takeshita, known as a skilled back-room politician, has remained a powerful figure both in and out of the LDP.

His faction, which Obuchi inherited from his mentor in 1992, continues to be the largest within the ruling party.

Takeshita’s absence may not have an immediate impact. But its impact “may come to the surface when the political scene begins to change,” because without him, the Obuchi faction will lack a man to draw a clear strategy, said an LDP lawmaker close to former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato, who hopes to challenge Obuchi in a party presidency election that must be held by September.

In addition to its size, the Obuchi faction has been known as a group experienced in both fighting and shaking hands with its rivals to win its objectives. The absence of Takeshita the instructor may affect Obuchi’s re-election bid.

A senior Obuchi faction member insisted Takeshita is in control, noting that Takeshita held intensive talks for three hours with Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nobaka, also a key leader of the Obuchi faction, in a car on their way back from attending rites to mark the third anniversary of the March 27 death of LDP kingmaker Shin Kanemaru.

Rebutting speculation that Takeshita may be seriously ill, the faction member insisted that he is all right, adding that he “keeps a memo of what is happening while he is in the hospital.”

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