Mon, Mar 03, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Fukuda plans to retain defense chief

HARRIED The opposition has called for the resignation of the defense minister after a destroyer collided with a fishing boat last month, leaving two fishermen missing

AGENCIES , TOKYO

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda on yesterday rejected calls for his defense chief to resign, saying he was needed to reform the scandal-ridden Defense Ministry, Kyodo news agency said.

Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba has been harried by accusations of a coverup over the circumstances behind a collision between a destroyer and a fishing boat last month.

Ishiba has admitted flaws in the ministry's investigations, but denied any attempt to hide information and pledged to resign if a coverup was shown to have taken place.

"It is Minister Ishiba's responsibility to take charge of reform and create a ministry and armed forces trusted by the people," Kyodo quoted Fukuda as saying.

The ministry is undergoing reforms after a series of bribery scandals and security leaks over the past year.

"I am aware of various criticisms, but rather than my own problems, if we don't do something about this organization, this country will not become a proper nation," Ishiba said in a televised discussion on yesterday.

"I never intend to run away, but I want always to think about what responsibility I should fulfill to the nation," he said.

But the opposition Democratic Party, which, along with smaller allies, dominates the less powerful upper house of parliament, said Ishiba was not a convincing reformer.

Opposition parties have criticized him for initially claiming the ministry was not in touch with the crew of the destroyer involved in the crash, but later admitting he personally had questioned the ship's navigator.

"In a sense, he is responsible for what has happened until now," Democratic Party executive Kenji Yamaoka told the program, noting that other problems had emerged when Ishiba had held the top defense post in the past.

"This time there is clearly manipulation of information," he said.

"For the person who is in charge to talk about reform as if he were a third party or a reformer will not persuade the people," Yamaoka said.

He said Ishiba should resign after clarifying the causes of last month's accident.

The loss of a minister seen by analysts and the electorate as one of his most competent would be a blow for Fukuda, whose support rates are already sagging.

His government is having trouble even appointing a new central bank governor in the face of objections by the powerful opposition.

Meanwhile, Fukuda made a tearful apology yesterday to the family of two fishermen who went missing.

He visited the family in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo and met with the relatives of the fishermen, a father and his adult son, who have been missing since the early morning of Feb. 19, when the Atago destroyer crashed into their tuna-fishing boat.

He was moved to tears as he looked at photos of the men at their house, and he apologized to their family and promised to prevent similar accidents, people who witnessed the visit said.

Fukuda later met with reporters in Tokyo and said the family had written him a letter urging him not to dismiss Ishiba and other senior officials connected to the incident.

"The letter said that Minister Ishiba, the captain of the ship and others should not just quit and end their involvement in this. It said, rather they should stay and continue to work to prevent accidents like this and educate young people," Fukuda told reporters.

Ishiba and the destroyer's captain called on the family earlier in separate visits.

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