Land, Transport and Infrastructure Minister Nobuteru Ishihara told Japan Highway Public Corp. President Haruho Fujii on Sunday to hand in his resignation Monday to take responsibility for the semigovernmental firm’s controversial balance sheet.

Ishihara conveyed his intention to Fujii by telephone after meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in the evening.

“I expect him to make the appropriate decision,” Ishihara told a news conference.

The dismissal had been expected, as Ishihara suggested when he was appointed the land minister in Koizumi’s latest Cabinet reshuffle last month.

Political pundits see Fujii’s ouster as a message by Koizumi to opponents of his reform agenda within the Liberal Democratic Party and in the bureaucracy that he is sticking to his plan of privatizing public highway operators by April 2005.

Ishihara met with Fujii at his ministry for 4 1/2 hours to hear his explanation of the credibility of the public corporation’s asset evaluation.

“He presented thick documents and explained things that I had doubts about (when Fujii gave different accounts about the balance sheet) during Diet deliberations,” Ishihara told reporters. “But I told Fujii frankly that there’s nothing new about the documents that would clearly eliminate my doubts.”

Ishihara said Fujii’s replacement will come from the private sector and will have a strong sense of private-sector management. He said the choice will be made as soon as possible.

Listing reasons for Fujii’s resignation, Ishihara said he brought confusion to Japan Highway and its relations with his ministry through erroneous explanations in the Diet of the balance sheet and caused the public corporation to suffer a severe setback in public opinion.

Fujii has been under fire for allegedly hiding a controversial financial statement showing that the corporation has a negative net worth.

“If something about me (resigning) would contribute to help drive the nation forward in reforming (the expressway operator), I would cooperate,” Fujii told reporters after the lengthy meeting with Ishihara. “I’m not the type of a person who goes on forever clinging to his position.”

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