TOKYO - Already battling plummeting popularity and smoldering discontent within his party, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has stumbled into a fight over a photograph that allegedly shows him dining with a gangster.
Mori has seen an advance copy of the weekly tabloid that plans to print the photo Monday and has warned the publisher he may take legal action if it appears, the government's top spokesman said Friday.
At the same time, he also played down the importance of the photo, saying it was apparently taken without the prime minister's knowledge during a function organized by supporters in western Japan years ago.
''The prime minister says it is not somebody he is directly acquainted with,'' Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said. ''He says he has no absolutely no recollection of ever having met him.''
But the photograph - due to appear in Weekly Gendai, a popular sex-and-scandal magazine - may further erode Mori's shaky standing as he tries to improve the troubled economy and make much-needed administrative reforms.
''Everybody in Japan knows that politicians are associated with all sorts of undesirable types, but most Japanese would prefer that they keep their dirty laundry hidden,'' said Yasunobu Iwai, a political science professor at Tokiwa University.
According to media reports, the article accompanying the photo claims that the man pictured with Mori is a former high-ranking gangster with rightist affiliations who has served time in prison for murder.
Weekly Gendai's editors have declined to discuss the article, saying in a statement Friday that they felt ''no need to comment on the contents of the article before the magazine goes on sale.''
But they confirmed that Mori pressured the magazine not to run the photo and criticized him for doing so.