TOKYO — Kabun Muto, Japan's former international trade minister who has opposed scrapping the ban on rice imports and once said U.S. auto employees work just three good days a week, was named foreign minister Tuesday.
Muto, 66, succeeds Michio Watanabe, who resigned Tuesday after fighting illness for the past several months. Muto was not Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's first choice but is considered a compromise candidate who will maintain the power balance among the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's various factions. Muto is a member of Watanabe's faction.
Miyazawa had initially offered the job to former finance minister Tsutomu Hata, an avid reformist who told reporters Tuesday that he declined the offer to maintain his freedom to fight for political change.
His snub of the job nearly overshadowed Muto's acceptance, since it fueled speculation that Hata and political ally Ichiro Ozawa may be planning to bolt the ruling party to form a new opposition group.
Japan's foreign policy, which is largely managed by bureaucrats, is not expected to change significantly. Japan is still likely to resist large-scale aid to Russia until a territorial dispute with Russia is resolved, sit on the sidelines in multilateral trade talks and continue to support U.N. peacekeeping operations in Cambodia and elsewhere.
But Watanabe, 69, was said to have hampered Japan's attempts to play a more active and visible role on the world stage because his illness had caused him to cancel meetings with foreign dignitaries and key parliamentary meetings. He was first hospitalized last year for a gallbladder operation, then readmitted in February after a U.S. visit. He was commuting to Parliament from the hospital.
Muto's first major test as the nation's top diplomat will come next week, when finance and foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrial nations gather in Tokyo for talks about aid to Russia.
He is considered more of a specialist on taxes and small business than foreign policy, and some Japanese news reports criticized his appointment because he lacks global experience at a time Japan is facing the Russian crisis, a North Korean nuclear threat and demands to play a larger international role.
Besides serving as minister of international trade and industry in 1990 and 1991, Muto also had been minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries in 1979.
Muto, whose father and grandfather were also politicians from Gifu prefecture in central Japan, is considered a "lone wolf" who charts an independent course even at the risk of conflict with party members. He annoyed former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu for trying to win consensus to alter Japanese law on large retail stores, a change the United States was demanding.
He also alienated some former farm allies by saying that Japan's rice import ban was an "Achilles heel" preventing the nation from contributing to global trade talks. But he never publicly repudiated his longstanding opposition to rice imports.
His most celebrated comments of late were made last year, when he prodded Miyazawa to utter his now famous remarks about the U.S. work ethic. During a budget committee meeting, Muto criticized the Big Three auto makers and said they should be held partly responsible for the U.S. trade deficit with Japan. He also quoted "American consumers" as cautioning against buying a Ford, Chrysler or General Motors car built after the weekend, saying:
"American auto workers cannot do their jobs on Mondays because they play too much on Saturdays and Sundays," Muto said. "On Fridays, they cannot put their heart and soul into their work as they are preoccupied with their plans to play the next day."
Muto called on U.S. business to refocus on increasing productivity. His request for Miyazawa's views prompted the prime minister's rambling answer about how the speculative booms in both the United States and Japan were eroding the work ethic to manufacture high-quality products.
Even though Miyazawa also criticized Japan, his remarks prompted a bilateral row and compelled him to apologize to American workers.