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Japan's Premier Mori Gets an Earful Even From Sports Fans

Despite the gaffe-prone prime minister's poor ratings, political analysts are divided over whether he will be ousted soon.


TOKYO — When it comes to hating their politicians, Japanese and Americans are roughly evenly matched. But Japanese used to be far more polite in expressing their disdain.

Not anymore. At two sports events in Tokyo last weekend, Japanese rugby and baseball fans stood up and booed their much-scorned leader, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, whose plummeting poll ratings and repeated gaffes have prompted calls from within his own party for his ouster.

In most countries, the jeers of sports fans might be shrugged off as politically irrelevant. In decorous Japan, however, the unprecedented television footage of well-dressed spectators yelling "Go home!" or "Quit now!" is taken as evidence that Mori's days in office are probably numbered.

Polls released this week by various news organizations found that up to 84% of Japanese disapprove of the Mori government and that 57% wish he would resign by the end of the year.

Two surveys, taken by the Mainichi daily newspaper and the "News Station" television program, found that Mori's support, hovering around 15%, is the third-lowest of any prime minister in postwar Japanese history.

Political commentators agree that Mori has unquestionably the worst-ever relationship with the Japanese media. "The [media's] hatred and contempt are openly expressed. I don't know why," said Tokyo University political scientist Takashi Inoguchi.

Even so, political analysts are divided over whether Mori will be forced to resign shortly or will limp along in office until July, when elections are scheduled for the upper house of parliament.

Mori, 63, was hastily chosen as a caretaker prime minister in April, after his predecessor, Keizo Obuchi, was felled by a stroke. The Liberal Democratic Party warhorse has since shown a talent for putting his foot in his mouth, most famously by calling Japan "a divine nation with the emperor at its center," language seen as a throwback to the militaristic imperial Japan.

His standing has further plummeted over the last two weeks after he revealed that Japan had proposed to North Korea that the 10 or so Japanese it accuses North Korea of abducting could simply turn up in a third country with no questions asked.

Mori insisted that the proposal was already an open secret. Relatives of the disappeared called it a betrayal, and commentators said it showed a characteristic lack of discretion.

Next, Mori's closest political aide and confidant, Hidenao Nakagawa, was forced to resign as chief Cabinet secretary last Friday over allegations that he had lied about an extramarital affair and his connections with a right-wing leader.

Even before Nakagawa's resignation, a few young lawmakers in the Liberal Democratic Party were publicly calling for Mori's head.

"Somebody has to stand up and say, 'The king has no clothes,' " said lawmaker Nobuteru Ishihara, 43, the son of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and one of the LDP's young rebels.

Others warn that the party is headed for disaster in July if Mori remains at the helm.

"If things go on this way, the LDP will not be able to win the election without God's mercy and the Buddha's protection," said Koichi Kato, a former LDP secretary-general who is seen as the man most likely to succeed Mori.

The problem for Kato--or anybody else who aspires to Mori's job--is that the LDP usually requires its prime ministers to step down to take responsibility when it suffers an electoral setback.

Mori's string of blunders, the LDP's lack of support among urban Japanese voters and the weak economy have convinced most political observers that the LDP is almost certain to lose in July. The only question is how badly. This means that any new prime minister could be short-lived.

"The chances that Mori will be forced out of office by the end of the year seem to be growing day by day," said Gerald Curtis, a Columbia University specialist in Japanese politics who is living in Tokyo. "The only thing keeping him in is that it's dangerous for anybody to become prime minister right now."

Inoguchi, the Tokyo University political scientist, predicts that Mori's rivals will oust him next spring, once the budget is passed and the election looms.

"They will gang up on him and push him out using public opinion and the mass media," Inoguchi said. "It won't be difficult for them to find a mistake or a gaffe because he makes at least one every day."

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