Hatoyama Yukio, DPJ secretary-general, has already called for Mr. Nakagawa to be fired for “doing immeasurable harm to the national interest.” (Presumably Mr. Hatoyama was referring to ABC’s reporting on Mr. Nakagawa’s falling asleep.) Ozawa Ichiro added that for a minister to act as Mr. Nakagawa did on the world stage is a “disgrace.”
The question now is whether Mr. Nakagawa was drunk. As this Asahi article reviewing the response to Mr. Nakagawa’s behavior notes (in passive voice), “Mr. Nakagawa is known as a drinker.” Kawamura Takeo, the chief cabinet secretary, admitted that while Mr. Nakagawa had some wine at lunch, it was not enough for Mr. Nakagawa to become inebriated — the cause was his taking too much cold medicine.
Former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro, however, did not help the government by noting in an appearance on TBS that he had warned Mr. Nakagawa about his drinking in the past. (Mr. Mori has become almost fatalistic about the future of his party in recent remarks — in the same appearance on TBS, he said that an election should be held as soon as the budget passes, in effect admitting that there is nothing Mr. Aso can do to rescue his government and his party before September so he might as well go through with an election sooner rather than later.)
Given that Mr. Nakagawa’s alcoholism is an open secret in the Japanese political world, it is unlikely that the government’s explanation will hold water, which raises the question: should it matter?
On this question it is worth looking at a 2006 article at Slate by British historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the fall of Charles Kennedy, the leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats. Wheatcroft looks back at the role of alcohol in democratic politics over the twentieth century and concludes that times have changed.
Kennedy,” he wrote, “is a likable man, but you have to say he had it coming. He had regularly given the impression in public of being either sozzled or monumentally hung-over, making an awful mess of policy presentation during last spring’s election.”
He concluded, “Charles Kennedy’s departure is sad but not tragic.”
The same might be said of Mr. Nakagawa should he be forced to step down as the result of this scandal.
Mr. Nakagawa clearly has a problem to deal with, but that is his concern; he should not be the object of ridicule. The important question is whether Japan’s finance ministry should be headed by a man struggling with a disease that clearly affects his ability to work just as its economy collapses, the answer to which is no. In some sense, this is a symbolic question, because I have to imagine that the finance ministry bureaucrats have ensured the smooth functioning of the ministry under Mr. Nakagawa’s watch. (Indeed, I imagine that the finance ministry’s power has waxed in recent months, despite the anti-bureaucratic wave in Japanese politics.) But the symbols do matter; surely pictures of the finance minister falling asleep at a summit alongside the finance ministers and central bankers of the developed world do little to inspire confidence in the ability of the Japanese government to respond to the crisis.
It is, of course, possible that the government’s explanation is correct. Mr. Nakagawa has said that his behavior was the result of mixing alcohol and cold medicine, but even if this is true, this incident has shed light on Mr. Nakagawa’s alcoholism, which, as suggested by Wheatcroft, should be considered problematic. The lid has come off on the open secret, and it is now a subject for discussion.
The bigger question, beyond Mr. Nakagawa’s fitness for office, is Aso Taro’s capacity for governing. When Mr. Aso named Mr. Nakagawa as his finance minister, I suggested that naming Mr. Nakagawa as finance minister was akin to John McCain’s naming Sarah Palin as his running mate — not because Mr. Nakagawa is as abjectly clueless as Mrs. Palin, but because both choices suggested that the choosers were unserious about governing, as they handed important posts to manifestly unqualified individuals for wholly political reasons (Mr. Aso to reward an important ally in the party, Mr. McCain to shore up his support among conservatives and to try to poach disgruntled Hillary voters). Now we learn that Mr. Aso handed an important post in the midst of a “once in a century economic crisis” to not only a political ally with little background or expertise in financial and economic affairs, but to a political ally with little background or expertise in financial and economic affairs struggling with a medical problem that can affect his ability to perform his duties.
Mr. Mori, in the same TV appearance mentioned previously, said that had he not been on a trip to the US when the Aso cabinet formed, he would have protested Mr. Nakagawa’s being named the finance minister.
It is too late to lament the original mistake. With the government’s committing to the story that Mr. Nakagawa was simply doped up on cold medicine, it may be too late to fix the mistake without mortally wounding a government already nearing death. It is entirely conceivable that this scandal, with its international ramifications (mostly in terms of Japan’s pride), could set in motion a train of events that will bring down the government and trigger an election, the final blow to the prime minister’s support within his own party.