Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was forced to fight back Wednesday as opposition leaders urged him to resign during a terse Diet debate that centered on the latest in a growing string of gaffes.

Yukio Hatoyama, head of the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan called on both Mori and Hidenao Nakagawa, the chief Cabinet secretary, to step down in connection with comments Mori made Friday.

During a meeting in Seoul with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mori related that in 1997 he told North Korean officials they could solve a diplomatic row over 10 Japanese whom Tokyo says were abducted by pretending to find them in Bangkok and Beijing.

Hatoyama said this latest verbal blunder “was different in nature” and disqualifies him as prime minister.

Mori has stirred up controversy in his brief tenure as prime minister by referring to Japan as a country of god with the emperor at its center. He has also used an outdated word that conjured images of Japan’s wartime nationalism and has complained of being thought of as “a bastard” prime minister.

“The minute the prime minister spoke about it,” Hatoyama said of the diplomatic proposal that was actually made by Masaaki Nakayama, another LDP lawmaker, “it was no longer an option for a solution.”

Mori retorted by saying the proposal “is not a diplomatic secret” because it was reported by the press after the mission returned. Japan’s claim “is on the negotiation table,” he added, concluding that Hatoyama’s conclusion should be of greater disappointment to the families of those missing. Hatoyama, however, was quoting Shigeru Yokota, the father of one of those missing.

The debate came a day after Mori retracted comments made earlier by Nakagawa, the government’s top spokesman, that the proposal was the personal opinion of Nakayama.

Nakayama may have forced the retraction himself by publicly calling Mori and Nakagawa “liars.”

Regarding Hatoyama’s questions on the qualities a prime minister needs and whether Mori has them, the prime minister said, “I think it is a person who makes a fuss over a matter such as this . . . that lacks the qualities of a party leader.”

Tetsuzo Fuwa, chairman of the Japanese Communist Party, and Takako Doi, leader of the Social Democratic Party, also criticized the remark, questioned the veracity of the government’s abduction claim, arguing that the approach to negotiations must be different if the claim is based only on a “suspicion” and not an established fact.

Mori said the claim is based on careful police investigation, adding that Fuwa’s logic “could be taken to indicate the government should not negotiate the abduction issue (with Pyongyang).”

Takako Doi, leader of the Social Democratic Party, demanded Mori retract his statement that the controversial proposal belonged to the coalition’s mission, claiming that the SDP and New Party Sakigake — which were then coalition members — had not been consulted in advance.

Mori refused, noting that other members of the mission did not object to the proposal when it was made.

Vote-change bill passed

A Lower House committee on Wednesday passed a controversial bill to change the Upper House electoral system, with the revisions proposed by the ruling camp likely to become law today.

The bill was voted upon, amid fierce objection from the opposition camp, at the House of Representatives’ special committee on political ethics and electoral reform.

The ruling triumvirate — the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — voted for the bill, which would allow citizens to vote for either a party or one of its candidates in the proportional representation segment of Upper House elections, with all candidates on each party’s list benefiting from each other’s votes.

Under the present system, citizens are allowed to vote only for a party; the ranking of candidates on a party roster is predetermined by the party prior to an election.

The coalition’s proposal to replace the current “fixed roster” with the “open roster” system so that proportional representation balloting can be widened to include individuals is expected to be approved at a Lower House plenary session as early as today.

Opposition forces have insisted the bill be scrapped.

The opposition camp, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, boycotted Diet deliberations for nearly three weeks over the issue.

Criticism against the current fixed roster system mounted after former Financial Reconstruction Commission chief Kimitaka Kuze, an Upper House member belonging to the LDP, was forced to resign in July for having received millions of yen in benefits from private firms.

Kuze admitted upon his resignation that he needed the money to have his name placed higher on the LDP’s proportional representation roster.

The opposition maintains that the ruling coalition is cashing in on the Kuze scandal to create a favorable electoral system for itself before the summer’s Upper House elections.

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