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Naoki Inose knew that serving on the panel would be trying, but he didn't expect it to be life-threatening.

The 56-year-old freelance journalist and occasional adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is a leading member of a government study group that has called for privatizing four debt-choked highway companies. Public works matters ordinarily don't inspire murderous thoughts, but Inose has received death threats.

He and his fellow panelists, mostly economists and business figures, stated in their December report that the four companies have run up debts of ¥40 trillion ($333 billion) by building "roads to nowhere" in remote rural areas. Inose argues that "Koizumi needs to gradually dismantle a huge apparatus consisting of bureaucrats, reactionary politicians and old-line industries, like construction, that live off the loss-making public sector."

But just putting the report together was a struggle. Inose's insistence on having his privatization idea put to a vote prompted panel head Takashi Imai, chairman of Nippon Steel (a major supplier to highway builders), to stalk out of a meeting and resign.

Will Koizumi back off a pledge to close or privatize the companies? Sighs Inose, "I'm afraid the PM may be weakening."