Land minister Nobuteru Ishihara officially sacked Japan Highway Public Corp. President Haruho Fujii on Friday, calling him an obstacle to the government’s plan to privatize the debt-strapped entity by 2005.

The dismissal notice came just one week after a nine-hour hearing Oct. 17 to let Fujii state his case, in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Law. Ministry officials delivered it to Fujii shortly before noon.

Fujii’s lawyers vowed later in the day that they will take legal action in a bid to nullify the dismissal.

“It is regrettable that (the announcement) has been forcibly made . . . despite our utmost efforts to prove through the hearing that the dismissal is illegal,” they said in a statement. “If such an illegal deed is allowed, it would not only infringe on Mr. Fujii’s honor but also invite illicit intervention of politics into administration.”

Ishihara, minister of land, infrastructure and transport, told a news conference that he made the “deeply troubling decision” to sack the 67-year-old former Construction Ministry bureaucrat who has exerted a strong influence over the nation’s road administration for decades.

Ishihara said he made the decision overnight after receiving a set of reports Thursday from Shigetaro Yamamoto, a director general of policy planning at the ministry who presided over the hearing.

The reports comprised Yamamoto’s opinion and the minutes of the hearing. Yamamoto approved of the ministry’s decision to sack Fujii and brushed aside Fujii’s counterargument that his dismissal was politically motivated and lacks a specific reason.

“After taking the reports fully into consideration, I have decided to relieve President Fujii from his post,” Ishihara said. Fujii’s “dismissal was truly a deeply troubling decision.”

Ishihara indicated he would act quickly to find Fujii’s successor. The choice would be made from among people who “have a strong will to reform” the financially troubled semigovernmental expressway operator, struggling under debts totaling 40 trillion yen.

After making the announcement, Ishihara summoned Japan Highway Vice President Koichi Murase and urged him to step in immediately as interim chief.

Murase later issued a statement promising to work to reform Japan Highway ahead of its scheduled privatization and cooperate with ministry officials and fellow executives at the corporation.

During the news conference, Ishihara expressed regret that he was unable to persuade Fujii to voluntarily resign. He launched the dismissal procedure Oct. 6 after Fujii rejected Ishihara’s request to step down.

Ministry officials said Fujii’s dismissal was in accordance with Article 13 of the Japan Highway Corporation Law, which empowers the minister to dismiss the president if he is deemed unfit for the job.

Ishihara reiterated that Fujii is unfit for the job now that he has damaged the public’s trust in Japan Highway by failing to sincerely address the controversy over the corporation’s balance sheets.

Ishihara also blamed Fujii for damaging relations with other Japan Highway executives following media reports that he allegedly held a secret meeting in April to introduce secret advisers from outside.

He said Fujii ran Japan Highway in an unnatural manner by preventing his subordinates from having direct contact with him.

Addressing concerns that the protracted dispute over Fujii’s dismissal may affect the privatization scheme, Ishihara said his ministry is preparing bills to be submitted to the Diet next year.

A joint conference between lawmakers and experts will be held later this year as scheduled to set priorities on which expressways should be built with direct government spending, he said.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said later in the day that the government will try to find a successor to Fuji from the private sector, rather than from the nation’s bureaucratic circles.

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