Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa abruptly resigned Tuesday evening amid rapidly growing calls to quit over his sloppy and allegedly drunken appearance at a Group of Seven press briefing in Rome on Saturday.
Prime Minister Taro Aso accepted Nakagawa’s resignation letter immediately and said he would appoint economic and fiscal policy minister Kaoru Yosano, 70, to succeed Nakagawa in both posts, giving him a total of three portfolios and leaving the fate of Japan’s deteriorating economy and finances to one man.
“It’s very regrettable,” Aso said of Nakagawa, one of his closest political allies.
Earlier the day, the finance minister, who was also in charge of the financial services portfolio, said he would resign after the fiscal 2009 budget and related bills cleared the Lower House. But that timetable threatened to delay the critical legislation as calls grew louder from both sides of the Diet for him to quit over the debacle. The voices included those of New Komeito, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s junior partner in the coalition government.
Nakagawa told reporters that he changed his mind after the opposition parties began boycotting Diet sessions over the issue.
“Once this budget (and) budget-related bills clear the Lower House, I am thinking of immediately submitting my resignation letter,” Nakagawa, 55, said at a hastily called news conference held in the ministry in Tokyo. “I deeply apologize for immensely having troubled the prime minister, the people and other related parties due to my carelessness of health management.”
At the Rome G7 news conference, Nakagawa slurred his speech, at times appeared half asleep and had trouble answering questions from reporters. His behavior sparked speculation that he may have been drunk, as it has long been rumored he is a heavy drinker.
Nakagawa, however, denied this and claimed he had taken too much cold medicine.
Even though Nakagawa said he would step down, calls from the opposition camp and even within the ruling bloc had mounted for him to do so immediately, not after the budget bills are passed.
The opposition parties had planned to grill Nakagawa in the Diet and submit a nonbinding censure motion to the Upper House, which they control.
Although nonbinding, a similar resolution in 1998 prompted Fukushiro Nukaga to step down as Defense Agency chief.
Susumu Yanase, Diet affairs chief of the DPJ’s Upper House caucus, told reporters after the censure motion was submitted that Nakagawa should resign as soon as possible.
“It goes without saying that the global economy is in an emergency state and that the G-7 meeting in Rome was extremely important financially,” Yanase said.
But after Nakagawa’s “disgraceful behavior at a news conference, in which Japan was supposed to send the world a message, it is natural to decide that the nation cannot wait for the finance minister” to resign, he said.
During Tuesday’s news conference, Nakagawa said a medical examination conducted the same day diagnosed he was suffering from back pain, a cold and exhaustion.
Although Nakagawa said he does not require emergency medical treatment, he said he may admit himself into a hospital later Tuesday.
“It is not that I need an operation or have a condition that is rapidly worsening,” Nakagawa said. “Being hospitalized would instead help me maintain my physical strength so I can concentrate on this job.”
Nakagawa had stressed that he would remain at his post until the budget and its related bills clear the Lower House.
“I am determined to make full efforts in my duties in the remaining days,” Nakagawa said earlier Tuesday. “I will strive to help achieve an economic recovery as soon as possible.”
Nakagawa’s resignation came only a day after the Cabinet Office said the economy plummeted at an annualized pace of 12.7 percent in the three months through December, its worst fall in 35 years.
It also came amid plummeting public support for Aso — below 10 percent in one survey published Sunday — and in an economy that is sinking deeper into recession ahead of an election that must be held no later than October.
Nakagawa’s resignation followed that of Nariaki Nakayama, who exited as transport minister in September following a series of verbal gaffes after only five days in office.