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Japan's finance minister denies being drunk at G7

Latest update : 2009-02-17

Japan's finance minister (pictured) has denied that he was drunk at a G7 news conference in Rome, while the opposition has called for him to be fired. The embarrassment piles pressure on unpopular Prime Minister Taro Aso ahead of elections.

REUTERS - Japan's finance minister denied on Monday that he had been drunk at a G7 news conference but the opposition demanded that he be fired, piling pressure on unpopular Prime Minister Taro Aso ahead of an election this year.

Shoichi Nakagawa, 55, a close ally of Aso, said he had not drunk more than a sip of alcohol before the news conference that followed a Group of Seven finance leaders meeting in Rome.

But he said he had taken a large amount of cold medicine, which may have affected his performance badly, and that his future was in the hands of Aso.

The fuss over Nakagawa's behaviour at the news conference comes as Aso's public support is plummeting ahead of an election that must be held no later than October and as the economy sinks deeper into recession.

If Nakagawa is fired or forced to quit, analysts said, it would be a heavy blow to Aso, struggling to keep his own grip on power after a series of gaffes and policy flip-flops.

"It is a fact that I didn't conduct myself clearly, and I feel I must put it straight," Nakagawa told reporters in Tokyo about the news conference.

At the news conference with Bank of Japan Governor Masaaki Shirakawa after the G7 meeting, Nakagawa's speech sounded slurred. At one point, Nakagawa, his head down and eyes closed, mistook a question directed at the BOJ governor as one for him.

Nakagawa attributed his behaviour to having taken too much medicine, including cold medicine.

"That is the fact, and I am sorry about it," he said.

The minister said his performance at the G7 had not harmed Japan's standing or its relations with other G7 members, but the main opposition Democratic Party disagreed.

"It's embarrassing. This has sent a message to the whole world," Democratic Party Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama told reporters. "Really I think he should be fired immediately. He's damaged the national interest."

Hatoyama said the Democrats would submit a parliamentary censure motion against the finance minister if he did not lose his job, Jiji news agency reported.

A censure motion in parliament's upper house, controlled by the opposition, is non-binding but one minister was pressured to resign in the past by such a resolution.

Potentially lethal?

Asked if he intended to resign, Nakagawa, a right-leaning lawmaker who has also held farm and trade portfolios, said it was up to the prime minister to decide his fate.

Political analysts said if Nakagawa stepped down or was axed it would be a serious blow to Aso, who appointed his close ally to hold both the finance minister post and the banking supervision portfolio when he took office last September.

"Losing someone in charge of the financial system and public finances at this juncture ... is potentially lethal for his (Aso's) own tenure," said Koichi Nakano, a Sophia University political science professor.

Even if Nakagawa stays, "it will add to the impression that Aso is well past his expiration date," Nakano said.

Grilled in a parliamentary panel over his behaviour, Nakagawa later said he had sipped wine at a luncheon toast on the day of the news conference, but had not consumed an entire glass.

"I did not drink a glassful," he said.

Japanese TV broadcasters and national newspapers issued news stories calling attention to Nakagawa's behaviour at the news conference at the G7 gathering to discuss the world financial crisis. Video of the media conference was widely circulated on the Internet.

Japan has been hit hard by the global downturn. Its economy is suffering an unprecedented slump in exports, posting in the final quarter of last year its biggest GDP contraction since the first oil crisis in 1974.

Date created : 2009-02-16