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Friday, Feb. 20, 2009
Aso accepts blame for Nakagawa
Ex-minister was warned about alcohol in past
By MASAMI ITO
Prime Minister Taro Aso apologized Thursday over the abrupt exit in disgrace of Shoichi Nakagawa as finance minister and accepted responsibility for appointing him.
"There were no cases in the past where a finance minister was replaced during Diet deliberations" of a budget bill, Aso said during a Lower House Budget Committee session.
"I really apologize for this," he said, stressing that swift enactment of the fiscal 2009 budget should be the Diet's priority.
Nakagawa stepped down as finance minister and head of the Financial Services Agency after slurring his speech and looking like he was having trouble staying awake during a news conference after a Group of Seven meeting in Rome on Saturday.
In the subsequent firestorm, Nakagawa denied he was drunk.
Aso revealed during the session that when he appointed Nakagawa in September, he cautioned him "to be careful about drinking sake."
Nakagawa has long been known as a heavy drinker.
"It is true that I did hear various rumors" about his drinking habits, Aso said.
He also tried to defend his disgraced ally by stressing that Nakagawa stepped down "mainly" because he could not manage his " health condition."
Also appearing before the budget committee, Rintaro Tamaki, director general of the Finance Ministry's International Bureau, revealed that Nakagawa ordered a bottle of wine during a private working lunch before the news conference.
But Tamaki, who accompanied Nakagawa to Rome, also said the finance chief didn't drink a lot of the wine and only "tasted it with his lips."
Aso told the committee he was shocked when he saw footage of Nakagawa's behavior at the news conference, which was aired repeatedly by national TV stations and picked up by overseas media as well.
"My first reaction was one of surprise — I couldn't grasp the situation," Aso said. "I was shocked and didn't understand what was happening" to Nakagawa.
"Maybe it had to do with health reasons, but people would normally assume Nakagawa was drunk after seeing those images," said committee member Yukio Edano of the Democratic Party of Japan. "Don't you know how ashamed the people felt over this incident?"
DPJ deputy chief Naoto Kan also grilled Aso during the session, saying Aso was responsible for choosing a Cabinet minister rumored to have alcohol problems.
Strong calls for Nakagawa's resignation came from not only the opposition force but also the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc, which meant his fate was sealed.