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Japan finmin faces possible censure, job in doubt

JAPAN'S finance minister faced a possible parliamentary censure today after denying he was drunk at a G7 news conference, as the furore over his behaviour dealt a fresh blow to unpopular Prime Minister Taro Aso.

Aso asked his close ally Shoichi Nakagawa to stay in his post yesterday, but emboldened opposition parties were set to grill the minister again in parliament and have said they would submit a censure motion to the upper house if his answers fail to satisfy.

"It was a sloppy performance that damaged our country's interests. Prime Minister Taro Aso can not neglect this situation that symbolises the slackness in his administration," the Mainichi newspaper said in an editorial today.

"The (opposition) Democratic Party is considering a censure motion against Nakagawa, but the prime minister himself must show responsibility for the weakening morals in his administration.

"It would be irresponsible to pretend not to notice after having caused trouble to the public."

The fuss over Nakagawa's behaviour at the news conference comes as Aso's public support is plummeting -- below 10 percent in one survey published on Sunday -- ahead of an election that must be held no later than October and as the economy sinks deeper into recession.

Surveys show the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan has a good shot at ousting Aso's Liberal Democrats, ending more than 50 years of almost unbroken rule.

Nakagawa, 55, repeated today that he had not done more than sip some wine before the news conference at the end of the Group of Seven meeting of finance leaders in Rome on Saturday.

He has blamed cold medicine for affecting his behaviour, and said he would submit a note from his doctor about the drugs he took on the trip.

"It's true that there was wine in front of me. I sipped but it's not like I drank," Nakagawa told reporters.

Nippon Television reported that he had gone to the hospital for checks ahead of an expected appearance in parliament.

If Nakagawa is 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. A departure, however, was unlikely to have much effect on economic policies.

Health and Labour Minister Yoichi Masuzoe told reporters that it would be ill-advised to replace Nakagawa, who is in charge of the budget as well as banking supervision, at the present time.

"It would be a minus to change the minister in charge of the budget at at time when the budget is being debated in parliament," Kyodo news agency quoted him as saying.

Aso is trying to enact an extra budget for the fiscal year ending on March 31 as well as a record 88.5 trillion yen (US$965 billion) budget for the year to March 2010 to help stimulate the economy, now sinking deeper into recession.

There have been calls for additional stimulus after data released yesterday showed the world's second biggest economy in its sharpest quarterly decline since the 1974 oil crisis.

Global downturn has slashed demand for Japan's cars, tech and other exports and economists warn of more pain ahead.

Consumer Affairs Minister Seiko Noda, however, had harsh words for her colleague.

"It was a shocking video," she said of the video of the Group of Seven news conference in Rome, where Nakagawa slurred his words and appeared to fall asleep at one point.

"Whether he quits or not is up to the minister or to the prime minister, who appointed him," Kyodo quoted Noda as telling reporters.


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