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Worry, speculation and embarrassment have overwhelmed Japan’s political world in the two days since Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was incapacitated by a stroke on Sunday. As hopes vanished for his resumption of the nation’s most responsible political post, the Obuchi Cabinet resigned en bloc on Tuesday and governing party leaders were striving to ensure a smooth changing of the guard.

Mr. Obuchi’s sudden disappearance comes as the triumvirate ruling coalition reaches a critical point. With nearly half of the 50 Liberal Party members breaking with the coalition, the ruling parties are faced with an urgent need to reconsolidate the structure of the coalition, which now is based mainly on the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito.

Illness struck Mr. Obuchi just when, following the Diet’s passage of the fiscal 2000 government budget, he was gearing himself up to tackle the remaining items on this year’s political agenda, which include the annual G7 summit meeting in July, the dissolution of the House of Representatives and the ensuing general elections. The summit, in particular, has topped his list of priorities. By succeeding in his role as host to world leaders at the Okinawa summit, Mr. Obuchi intended to check the recent decline in the popularity of his coalition government. With general elections expected some time before October, he was concerned over the continuing drop in the public’s assessment of his Cabinet.

On the domestic front, Mr. Obuchi had been able to efficiently attain short-term policy goals thanks to the numerical superiority of the coalition government. The new government budget was approved by the Diet before March 31, the last day of the previous fiscal year, an unprecedented achievement in recent years. Otherwise, however, he had been under grueling pressure. The string of difficulties he faced included the series of disclosures of corruption in the nation’s police organization, the calamitous eruption of Mount Usu in Hokkaido, and the LP’s departure from the ruling coalition.

At a weekend meeting among coalition party heads, Mr. Ichiro Ozawa of the LP repeatedly called for speedy action to implement the remaining policy agreements during the current Diet session. But Mr. Obuchi rejected the request, which he reportedly said was “difficult” to meet. With that, Mr. Ozawa had no choice but to leave the coalition. At the same time, Mr. Obuchi apparently had his own reasons for parting with Mr. Ozawa: Protracted discord within the already shaky coalition could have endangered his own administration.

The LDP first formed a governing coalition with the LP in January of last year, and then New Komeito joined in October. With a solid majority behind him, Mr. Obuchi seemed to be in a strong position to achieve enduring political stability. As it turned out, however, Mr. Ozawa rocked the boat again and again, threatening to bolt the alliance unless the policy accord was put into action. Some parts of the agreement have in fact been translated into reality, such as the reduction in the number of Lower House seats. But the LDP’s electoral cooperation with the LP obviously fell short of satisfying Mr. Ozawa, who was strongly concerned about the LP’s poor prospects in the upcoming election.

This rupture with one of the coalition partners seems to have imposed additional stresses and strains on Mr. Obuchi, who was thought to have been extremely tired, both physically and mentally. The fact that he collapsed hours after that meeting apparently suggests that the two may be linked. We are all vulnerable, both physically and mentally, to such strains. This is especially true for ultimate decision-makers like the prime minister, who must deal with multiple conflicts of interest, rapid changes in the social environment and veritable floods of information.

This means that a permanent crisis-management structure to prevent any kind of “discontinuity” resulting from an illness or accident affecting a person in charge of steering the nation is essential for any state. Mr. Obuchi’s sudden illness and related developments have revealed that Japan has yet to acquire these crisis-management capabilities. It took 22 hours before the public was informed of the exact condition of the ailing prime minister. In the political world, falling ill often crucially affects the career of that politician. It is understandable, therefore, that people close to the prime minister tried to keep Mr. Obuchi’s illness secret. What is important, however, is that the prime minister is a public person, not an individual in the ordinary sense of the word.

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