Fujii will depart

On Tuesday, Fujii Hirohisa, the seventy-seven-year-old finance minister who was hospitalized late last year, indicated that he will in all likelihood resign his post sometime soon. While he is officially waiting for his doctor’s advice on his health, Fujii seems determined to resign.

In trying to dissuade Fujii from leaving, Prime Minister Hatoyama said that since Fujii “gave birth to a child” (the budget), he should stay on “to raise it.” Fujii, however, insists that he will not be able to handle the strain of budgetary debates, suggesting that he will likely be gone before the ordinary Diet session opens on 18 January. (For those who want some groundless speculation about the reasons for Fujii’s departure, Sankei has it all: declaring that it is “difficult to understand” the “suddenness” of the resignation of a seventy-seven-year-old cabinet minister who had to be hospitalized for exhaustion, it turns to Ozawa Ichiro — Sankei‘s villain of choice — to argue that Ozawa hounded Fujii to exhaustion, and, moreover, that Fujii was about to be hit with a political finance scandal from his days as secretary general of Ozawa’s Liberal Party.)

Hatoyama’s metaphor is probably not far off the mark. Considering that it seemed unlikely that the government would get its budget done before year’s end after it ordered the finance ministry to cease work and decided to start over from scratch, it seems likely that Fujii bears considerable responsibility for completing the budget on schedule — to the detriment of his own health. A recent Foresight magazine article documents the extent to which the finance ministry has become unified with the government, thanks to the employment of Fujii and cabinet office deputy Furukawa Motohisa. The article suggests that there is some surprise in this development, but I must admit that I am not surprised at all. As the DPJ-led government struggles to cut wasteful spending and reform national administration, I expected it would increasingly find an ally in the the finance ministry, which, after all, still possesses useful skills for political leaders even if the political leaders are establishing the country’s priorities. For all Foresight‘s evidence about links between the finance ministry and the government, there are few signs if any that the ministry has been calling the shots. While Fujii has been relatively quiet as finance minister— especially compared to some of his ministerial colleagues — I suspect the finance ministry’s willingness to cooperate with the new government has a lot to do with Fujii’s influence and experience with the ministry.

For the same reasons that I thought Fujii would make a good finance minister (and why it was wise of Hatoyama to coax him out of retirement and convince him to campaign again last year), his resignation will be a blow to the Hatoyama government. Replacing him will be a challenge. Not only will Hatoyama have to find someone who can control the finance ministry but he will also have to find someone capable of resisting or ignoring the machinations of Kamei Shizuka, which Fujii was able to do. Sankei provides some names of potential successors — Kan Naoto, the deputy prime minister, Sengoku Yoshito, the head of the government revitalization unit, or Noda Yoshihiko, one of two finance vice ministers — but of these three, perhaps only Kan is up to the challenge. Kan does not have Fujii’s stature within the ministry, but he has been the DPJ’s most eloquent spokesman on changing the budgetary process and is a significant enough figure within the DPJ that he would be equal to the job. The same could not be said for Sengoku or Noda. Of course, appointing Kan as finance minister would spell the end of the national strategy bureau as an important group within the government. Its development delayed, without a leading figure like Kan at its helm the NSB would likely become little more than a research and advisory body for cabinet ministers than a policymaking actor in its own right. While this development may be for the best, it will be a consideration as the Hatoyama government considers how to proceed following Fujii’s resignation.

The media will try to spin this development as another blow to the government, but as usual, a bit of perspective is necessary. For once a senior minister is leaving office not because he has said or done something that embarrassed the government or (provided that Sankei‘s rumor-mongering is just that) because he has been found to have engaged in corruption, but because he is simply not up to the task physically. The Hatoyama government will replace him — not without some difficulty— and soldier on. Hopefully his successor will last longer in the job.

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