Once or twice a week, some 30 Japanese Dietmen troop in for breakfast at the dignified Capitol Tokyu Hotel in Nagata-cho, Japan's political district. Over miso soup and grilled fish, they hear a lecture from an outside expert and discuss hot topics such as the recent election of Bill Clinton in the U.S.
This relatively young bunch of parliamentarians seems destined to shake up Japanese politics. Calling themselves Reform Forum 21, they're set to become the sixth and newest faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. These factions dominate Japanese politics through votes in the Diet and the funds they supply to candidates.
TOUGHER LINE. Reform Forum 21 is the first serious effort to wrest control from the old men who have dominated the political scene since World War II. "Young people in the LDP are very eager to get out from the control of their seniors," says Satsuki Eda, a respected opposition Dietman.
This generational shift is being spurred by the mammoth, still-unfolding Sagawa Kyubin scandal that has linked leading politicians to illegal payoffs and gangsters. The younger leaders, such as Reform Forum 21 co-founders Tsutomu Hata and Ichiro Ozawa, are different from their elders. They dream of a more globally assertive Japan. They think such a change requires a cleaner government respected by its people. They also feel less beholden to the U.S. "It is finally time for a truly equal U.S.-Japan partnership," declares Kazuo Aichi, Reform Forum 21's policy chief.
If the new faction's views take hold, there could well be clashes with Clinton, who seems likely to take a tougher line on Japan. But Clinton might also appreciate Japanese leaders who speak clearly and take initiative.
The stature of Reform Forum 21's founders gives it a real shot at having a lasting impact. Finance Minister Hata, 57, is a smooth, widely respected politician long viewed as a potential prime minister. Ozawa, 50, is a savvy, rough-and-tumble former secretary-general of the LDP. He's the true power behind what will be called the Hata faction.
The two started down this road when they recently led a walkout from the once-dominant but now scandal-ridden Takeshita faction. The move has thrown the LDP into turmoil and threatened the position of the urbane but weak 73-year-old Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, whom the Takeshita crowd put in power. Right now, Miyzawa is deliberating over whether to include anyone from the new faction in the Cabinet he is expected to name soon.
The Prime Minister badly needs powerful allies. Leading political analyst Minoru Morita believes the current disarray will prevent Miyazawa from getting his budget passed next spring. That could crimp the economic recovery expected next year. It could also force elections that the LDP would have trouble winning--especially if Hata and Ozawa form a new party, as Morita expects.
FRICTION AHEAD? If they go that far, they would probably be joined by some young Dietmen from other factions and the opposition parties. They may also attract the support of a new, grass-roots reform movement led by well-known management consultant Kenichi Ohmae. Japanese political circles are buzzing with talk of a coalition government that would pave the way for either Ozawa or Hata to become prime minister.
A more decisive government is just what many Westerners have urged on Japan for years. But one wonders how comfortable Washington and Europe would really be with a Japan that, for example, throws its weight around more in Asia and demands a seat on the U.N. Security Council. That's the sort of Japan the younger generation wants.