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NOVEMBER 6, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 18


Charles Dharapak/AP.
Yoshiro Mori's statements keep getting him into trouble.

Foot in Mouth Disease
Japanese Prime Minister Mori's latest verbal gaffe has critics once again calling for his resignation
By TIM LARIMER Tokyo

Yoshiro Mori has a way with words. The problem is, the Japanese Prime Minister's way is to say the wrong thing to the wrong people at the wrong time. Ever since Mori stumbled into office last April after the collapse of Keizo Obuchi, people have been waiting for the tin-tongued orator to talk himself right back out again. Last week the 63-year-old politician came close, with indiscreet revelations concerning the contentious issue of what happened to 10 Japanese who went missing more than 20 years ago. Tokyo insists they were abducted by North Korean spies.

Blundering his way into the high-stakes political drama on the Korean peninsula, Mori offered a solution: let the missing Japanese be "discovered" in some other country, allowing Pyongyang to sidestep blame at this delicate moment. "North Koreans are very concerned about protecting their honor," Mori said to British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a meeting in Seoul on Oct. 20. The suggestion carries some practical appeal: Japan would get its citizens back, North Korea could keep up the pretense of not knowing anything about them and the two countries, which are holding talks in Beijing this week, could remove a major obstacle standing in the way of normalized relations. The problem was that Mori let the entire world in on Japan's delicate strategy. "He shouldn't have made this public," says Shigeru Yokota, the exasperated father of a 13-year-old girl who is believed to have been kidnapped by North Koreans in 1977. "If negotiations reach a deadlock in the future, North Korea might have considered this plan. Now it will be difficult for them to do so."

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The calls for Mori's resignation were swift. "You should quit immediately," opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama of the Democratic Party fumed during a parliamentary debate last week. Even deputies in Mori's Liberal Democratic Party piled on the criticisms. "The remark was inappropriate, and I'd like him to resign soon," said Yoshimi Watanabe, member of a faction of young LDP legislators. Making matters worse, Mori and his team tried a Clinton-esque approach to explaining away the problem. Mori said the idea was well known, that it had been proposed to North Korea by a delegation of lawmakers he led to Pyongyang three years ago. He tried shifting blame to another member of the delegation, former construction minister Masaaki Nakayama, who responded by calling Mori and his chief spokesman, Hidenao Nakagawa, "lying crows." Nakayama said: "It is unforgivable for them to dump all the responsibility on me and force me to fall on my sword."

In the end, it was Nakagawa who took the fall. The second Mori cabinet member to quit in four months, the Prime Minister's spokesman had plenty of his own troubles: he was accused of dealing with right-wing extremists and of leaking information about a police investigation to a girlfriend who might have been involved. "I am no saint," he said last week.

Despite the calls for Mori's resignation, Japanese politicians seem unlikely to follow up. Why? It serves their purposes to use Mori as a political punching bag, beating him up over his blunders while deflecting attention from serious problems that no politician thus far has dared address. That means the bumbling Prime Minister is likely to remain entrenched, if not invulnerable. Since coming to office, after Obuchi suffered what turned out to be a fatal stroke, Mori has done little but offend people. In his very first press conference as Prime Minister, he used an outdated term for China that is considered derogatory. Then he described Japan as a "divine country with the emperor at its center," a contradiction of the postwar constitution, which stripped the royals of political power. Just before elections in June, he urged undecided voters to stay home in bed. A recent survey by the newspaper Asahi found that his support rate had fallen to 23%.

A weakened administration couldn't come at a worse time for Japan. The stock market took a nose dive last week, dragged down by volatility on Wall Street, the lackluster performance of corporate stalwart Sony and fears that Mori's administration lacks the heft to handle Japan's economic turmoil. Two big life insurance companies have recently gone bankrupt and despite huge financial stimulus packages, the country still can't get its economy revved up again. Under a new law, the cabinet must be reorganized by January—which opens a window of opportunity to dump Mori. But while that might offer a graceful exit, there aren't many obvious contenders ready to step in. "Who would want to be Prime Minister?" asks E. Keith Henry, program associate with the M.I.T. Japan Program, a Tokyo research institution. "Nobody wants to deal with the big issue: the budget deficit. It's easier for politicians to have someone like Mori to kick around." Let's face it, he makes himself an easy target.

With reporting by Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo

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