Four weeks after former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was hospitalized with a stroke on April 2, the administration headed by new Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, former secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, appears to be functioning in a business-as-usual manner. In the past month, however, government and LDP leaders have not given a consistent and convincing enough account of what actually happened in the brief runup from Mr. Obuchi’s incapacitation to the inauguration of the new Cabinet.
As a result, a reasonable doubt persists about the legitimacy of the stopgap role that Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki played between Mr. Obuchi’s hospitalization and the formal inauguration of the Mori Cabinet. It was 22 hours later that Mr. Aoki announced Mr. Obuchi’s hospitalization at a press conference. The fact is that three hours earlier the comatose Obuchi was receiving emergency treatment in an intensive care unit.
Mr. Aoki said that Obuchi had told him, immediately before falling into a coma, to “take charge temporarily as acting prime minister, depending on the test results.” However, he acknowledged later that that was not exactly what he had been told to do. Mr. Aoki has since lost credibility because of his repeated — and often contradictory — “modifications.” On one occasion, pressed for clarification, he admitted that Mr. Obuchi had only told him to “work everything out.”
But Mr. Aoki alone should not be blamed for the ambiguity. Other LDP leaders, including Mr. Mori and Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka, have betrayed similar discrepancies in their official remarks in the Diet and elsewhere. Basically, however, they indicated that at a meeting of senior LDP leaders on April 2 between Mr. Obuchi’s early-morning hospitalization and Mr. Aoki’s press conference 22 hours later, they decided to let Mr. Aoki assume the responsibilities of acting prime minister.
This contradicts Mr. Aoki’s repeated accounts, casting doubts even on the legitimacy of Mr. Aoki’s assumption of such a role. The Cabinet Law stipulates that when the prime minister has suffered an accident or when the post is vacant, a state minister previously named by the prime minister will take the helm temporarily. Mr. Aoki’s account therefore provides the only legal means of saving the Mori administration from getting embroiled in even more serious controversies over this problem.
The Cabinet Law’s provision lacks the concept of crisis management. In this sense, Mr. Mori’s decision to set an order of succession for five Cabinet ministers as acting prime minister is a step forward. But it still is unclear what specific functions this new position entails or how long it can last. What if the prime minister’s post is vacant and an emergency occurs that prevents the Cabinet from resigning as would be required?
Japan can take its cue from the U.S. Constitution that mandates that the vice president take over for the president when the latter is incapacitated. The charter also sets an order of succession for 16 members of the Congress, from the speaker on down. The prime minister of Japan also assumes heavy responsibilities for the safety and welfare of the people.
Last week, government and LDP leaders decided to treat Mr. Aoki’s account of developments in the wake of Mr. Obuchi’s collapse as the only authoritative one. However, this settlement of convenience raises yet another question: Why is such a decision needed if Mr. Aoki told the truth?
All this concerns disclosure of information. Mr. Obuchi was hospitalized behind the scenes, and information about his condition was monopolized by a handful of government and LDP leaders, including the chief Cabinet secretary. Mr. Obuchi’s doctors have so far made no public statement. One wonders whether the chief Cabinet secretary tried to hide the truth out of political considerations. The prime minister’s illness, of course, is of serious concern to the public. Obviously the government has the responsibility of keeping the people accurately informed about his condition so as to remove any unnecessary public anxiety.
During face-to-face debates with opposition party leaders, Mr. Mori emphasized that the government has responded properly to the crisis. But the public is not persuaded. He owes the nation a full accounting of exactly what has happened since Mr. Obuchi was hospitalized. He must dispel the lingering public doubts about the former prime minister’s condition. And he must map out more effective measures, including better disclosure, to prepare for similar emergencies that may occur in the future. These are the first steps toward creating a better system of crisis management.
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