TOKYO, Feb 16 – Japan\’s Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa on Monday denied being drunk at a G7 meeting on the financial crisis and blamed cold medicine for appearing drowsy and slurring his speech at a press conference.
Nakagawa\’s performance after the weekend Group of Seven meeting in Rome came under fire from the media and the opposition called for him to be sacked.
One tabloid headline blared "Drunk!?" while television shows said they worried not just about the health of the global economy, but also of the finance minister, who is reputed to be a hard drinker.
Nakagawa, 55, looked drowsy and could not speak clearly during Saturday\’s joint press conference with Bank of Japan Governor Masaaki Shirakawa.
"Something like a joint statement was issued," he told reporters as he appeared to struggle to keep his eyes open.
"Interest rates, uh, set by the BoJ are between zero and 0.25 percent and very low," he said to the visible dismay of the central bank chief sitting next to him. The BoJ\’s target rate is now 0.1 percent.
He also mistakenly thought a question for Shirakawa was directed at himself.
"This should deserve immediate firing. It\’s a scandalous act," said the secretary general of the main opposition Democratic Party, Yukio Hatoyama, adding that the "damage to our national interest is immeasurable."
Nakagawa denied he had been drunk.
"I had a cold. Honestly, the cold medicine kicked in too much," he told reporters Monday. "I did not drink before the G7," he added, sniffing loudly.
Asked by reporters at a later press conference whether he would resign, he said "it is a decision to be made by the prime minister."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura, the top government spokesman, said what happened in Rome was "extremely regrettable" while noting the minister had apologised by telephone.
Nakagawa\’s bungling came as new data showed Japan\’s economy shrank at the fastest pace since 1974 in the last quarter of 2008, and as one television poll saw support for the government of Premier Taro Aso plunge below 10 percent.