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Friday, July 24, 1998

Business focuses on the crew rather than the leader


Staff writer

Concern over who will become the next prime minister is secondary to making sure that key posts in the new Cabinet, such as those of finance minister and foreign minister, are given to professionals.

That was the opinion expressed by many of Japan's business leaders following the selection of Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi as president of the Liberal Democratic Party to succeed Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. Obuchi is expected to be elected prime minister in a Diet vote next week due to the LDP's Lower House majority.

Despite Obuchi's overwhelming support within the LDP, such sentiment indicates that expectations of the new prime minister within the private sector are limited. "Looking at the LDP, we cannot expect to have a single powerful leader now," said Mitsutake Okano, adviser to the president at Mitsubishi Corp. "Obuchi was described by foreign media as a cold pizza, but I think it still tastes good if it is heated up and served with a glass of wine."

"Obuchi is a generalist," said Hiroshi Okuda, president of Toyota Motor Co. and a member of Obuchi's support group in Aichi Prefecture. "Hashimoto's mistake was that he stuck his nose in every matter. In that sense, Obuchi can do better than Hashimoto by placing effective people in key Cabinet posts such as the international trade and industry minister and the foreign minister."

With Japan's continuing economic slump and Thursday's announcement by Moody's Investors Service to consider a possible downgrade of Japanese government bonds' Aaa status, there is growing concern among business circles about the future of the nation's economy.

Some were discouraged by the results of the LDP presidential election. "The inauguration of Obuchi as prime minister will accelerate Japan selling in the financial market," said a business leader in the electronics sector who asked not to be named. "He is a nice person to be friends with, but I doubt he can exercise leadership."

Nobuo Tateishi, chairman of Omron Corp., said, "The selection of Obuchi is a betrayal of popular opinion, which strongly hoped for a change. The people's will and the LDP's traditional factional and seniority-style politics have never been this far apart. The LDP clearly lacks a sense of crisis."

Yet the nation's business leaders are pushing for the new government to become established quickly. They agree that the key to Japan's economic recovery lies in strengthening the financial sector, and like people who voted against the LDP, they also have started to realize that working exclusively with the LDP will not save this country.

"The most important task of the government is to revitalize Japan's economy, especially to rebuild the financial sector," said Takashi Imai, chairman of the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren).

"What we need now is speed," said Takahide Sakurai, chairman of Dai-Ichi Mutual Life Insurance Co. "Since the LDP cannot pass the bills by themselves, they must work to gain the understanding of opposition parties and implement policies without delay."



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