Japan Remembers Obuchi

Japanese recalled former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi at a private funeral Tuesday amid deep suspicions over why the government kept details of his sickness and death so secretive.

Since Obuchi collapsed from a stroke April 2, the Japanese public was kept in the dark about his health, except for a few remarks by government spokesman Mikio Aoki. Many have criticized the government for its lack of openness, not even holding a news conference until after Obuchi died Sunday. He was 62.

"He could have been dead all this time and they wouldn't tell us," said one mourner, Hisako Ogiwara.

Lining up around the funeral hall, the mourners, most dressed in black, waited to file past and place white carnations before Obuchi's coffin, which lay under a large photograph of the bespectacled former leader.

Many recalled Obuchi as a personable man who seemed never too busy to listen or too proud to poke fun at himself. The politician often compared himself to a dull, patient cow.

Taking office a year and a half ago when the nation was mired in a deep recession, Obuchi was instrumental in speeding along a bill to bail out debt-laden banks. He also pushed through national budgets loaded with public spending in an effort to salvage the economy.

"He drew attention with his happy-go-lucky personality. But when you look back, he was actually a great leader who got the nation past a crisis," said 55-year-old businessman Eiichi Umino.

Others spoke of their suspicion.

Hiroshi Kume, a popular TV commentator, said earlier this week that he found it difficult to believe anything the government said about Obuchi's death.

Japanese politicians are not obligated to disclose details of their health. Even bedridden politicians have held office for months.

Public doubts intensified this week when Obuchi's doctors contested Aoki's account of how the ailing Obuchi had entrusted him with his duties. Aoki said that in a conversation after the stroke, Obuchi asked about a volcano in northern Japan that required evacuation.

Saying he was acting on Obuchi's orders, Aoki took over the post temporarily until Yoshiro Mori was elected by Parliament.

The doctors said they were surprised by Aoki's comments because Obuchi at that time was not capable of making long statements.

Aoki defended himself, saying he merely paraphrased what Obuchi said. "You just have to believe me," he said.

Opposition legislator Banri Kaieda, among the dignitaries at the funeral, said his Democratic Party will continue to pursue the apparent discrepancies in Aoki's statements.

"The prime minister's office must disclose the facts to the public. No wonder people are comparing Japan to the Kremlin," Kaieda said.

Junichiro Saito, 72, an Obuchi supporter, said the former prime minister could have probably used better medical attention. Japanese prime ministers do not have their own teaof doctors as do U.S. presidents.

"Why weren't there any doctors at the prime minister's residence?" Saito asked. "If our nation is a democracy, the system of dealing with the prime minister's medical condition must change."

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