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Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007

Yanagisawa ouster calls linger

Staff writer

The outcome of Sunday's mayoral and gubernatorial elections -- one win and one loss for ruling bloc candidates -- seems to have provided a temporary reprieve for health minister Hakuo Yanagisawa, under fire for referring to women as "child-bearing machines."

News photo
Hakuo Yanagisawa KYODO PHOTO

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa met Monday and said they will keep Yanagisawa in his post, according to lawmakers. Yanagisawa meanwhile reiterated his intention to continue on as health minister.

Abe and his Cabinet still face a rocky road, however, because criticism is unlikely to abate even if Yanagisawa resigns. Yanagisawa has not even been immune to resignation calls -- especially from female ranks -- within the ruling coalition parties, many of whose members are focused on the July Upper House election.

Last week, female opposition lawmakers took to the streets amid their boycott to decry Yanagisawa. They asked female ruling bloc members to join their call for the minister's ouster but were rebuffed.

"If Yanagisawa does not resign, (people) will continue to talk about his remark until the Upper House election" in July, said Ikuo Kabashima, a University of Tokyo professor who studies voting behavior. "The negative image will probably continue to follow (the LDP) in every election that takes place."

Yanagisawa made the remark during a Jan. 27 speech on the declining birthrate and the strained social welfare and pension system.

"The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed," Yanagisawa said during the speech in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture. "Because the number of child-bearing machines and devices is fixed, all we can ask for is for them to do their best per head."

The remark outraged the opposition parties, which demanded Yanagisawa's immediate dismissal. The Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party) plan to boycott all Diet committee meetings until Yanagisawa steps down.

The Japanese Communist Party, which likewise wants Yanagisawa to resign, is shunning committee deliberations in the absence of the other opposition parties.

Kabashima said Abe is in a bind, caught between party members who say he should ignore the opposition and keep Yanagisawa on and others who say the health minister has become a liability.

"Prime Minister Abe is caught in the middle because he is too weak to protect (Yanagisawa) and at the same time too weak to dismiss him," Kabashima said.

In the Kitakyushu mayoral race, Kenji Kitahashi, a former Lower House member who had the support of the DPJ, SDP and Kokumin Shinto, received 217,262 votes. Takahiro Shibata, backed by the ruling bloc, got 177,675.

The Aichi gubernatorial election, on the other hand, was a narrow victory for the coalition-backed candidate.

Although Masaaki Kanda won a third term with 1.42 million votes, Yoshihiro Ishida was not far behind with 1.36 million.

Kanda had been expected to win by a large margin, thanks in part to two major achievements -- completion of the Central Japan International Airport and holding the 2005 World Expo in Aichi Prefecture -- said Rei Shiratori, president of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan.

But the impact of Yanagisawa's gaffe was so large that Kanda only managed to eke out a narrow win thanks to the ruling bloc pulling out all the stops, Shiratori said.

As criticism of the ruling coalition increases, Shiratori said, upcoming local elections and the Upper House poll will be an uphill battle for the LDP and New Komeito.

Abe's Cabinet has been rocked by scandals since its inauguration in September. Two important figures resigned in December -- Tax Commission Chairman Masaaki Honma and administrative reform minister Genichiro Sata.

Honma was forced to step down when it was discovered he was living with his mistress in a government-subsidized condominium in Tokyo despite advocating that such properties be sold off. Sata resigned after admitting accounting irregularities by one of his political support organizations.

Education minister Bunmei Ibuki, agriculture minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka and LDP policy chief Shoichi Nakagawa have also drawn fire for declaring enormous "office expenses" in their political funding reports while using rent-free government offices.

"The myth (within the LDP) that there is no one else who can hold the position of prime minister but Abe has collapsed," Shiratori said. "From now on, it will be up to Abe to prove (his strength) by achieving satisfactory results and showing leadership."

See related stories:
DPJ, allies boycott over Yanagisawa
LDP launches lineup of Abe goods to boost sagging support
Opposition ranks want Yanagisawa axed before deliberating on budget
Yanagisawa sexist remark draws Abe ire

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