Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii on Wednesday became the first member of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s Cabinet to resign. Mr. Hatoyama picked Deputy Prime Minister Naoto Kan as his successor.

The departure of Mr. Fujii, attributed to poor health from overwork, will be a great blow to the Hatoyama administration because his expertise was valued, as well as to Mr. Hatoyama personally because he was a close ally.

Mr. Fujii, the oldest member of the Cabinet at 77, played a central role in compiling the second fiscal 2009 supplementary budget and the fiscal 2010 budget. He was indispensable to an administration that has put priority on preventing a second dip in the economy. He was expected to be the key person for fielding tough budget-related questions from opposition forces during the regular Diet session due to start Jan. 18.

Without him, the administration is likely to have a hard time overcoming offensives from the opposition. That makes Mr. Kan’s role all the more important, as he will also be required to tackle the task of reworking the composition of the whole budget system for fiscal 2011 and beyond.

Mr. Fujii was hospitalized Dec. 28 for rest and medical tests, after compilation of the fiscal 2010 budget was completed. He had faced difficult issues such as how to limit the issuance of government bonds when tax revenues were rapidly falling and how to keep the DPJ’s main promises.

Before the Aug. 30 Lower House election, Mr. Fujii had announced a plan to retire from politics. In view of his experience with and knowledge of state finance, Mr. Hatoyama persuaded him to run in the election and he was successfully re-elected. Mr. Fujii, a former Finance Ministry bureaucrat, had served as finance minister from 1993 to 1994 when the Liberal Democratic Party was temporarily out of power.

Apparently Mr. Fujii decided to resign now to avoid having to do so later — sometime during the Diet session — due to his health. The DPJ and its coalition partners must strive to maintain unity in the administration in this time of transition.

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