Power Shift In Japan

Japanese politics for the past five years have been nothing if not topsy-turvy. Two Prime Ministers have been ousted by scandal. Another was toppled overnight, because of ineptitude, by ostensible allies. But for sheer shock value, none of those incidents rivals the sudden demise of incumbent Kiichi Miyazawa.

On June 18, in a dramatic vote of no-confidence, 475 members of the Japanese Diet's House of Representatives strode one by one to the speaker's rostrum and deposited a yellow or blue tile in a transparent box. Yellow meant yes on the no-confidence motion, and blue meant no. Miyazawa's fate, until then very much in the balance, was decided when Representative Hajime Ishii reached the podium and boldly dropped a yellow tile in the box. Cheers erupted, because his vote meant that a 35-member group of ruling Liberal Democratic Party was bolting.

The result has thrown Japanese politics into the greatest confusion since the mid-1950s, when the conservative LDP began its 38 uninterrupted years in power. The immediate reaction from many quarters has been euphoric. Public opinion polls show that there is massive support for the anti-Miyazawa forces. "There's a chance to change the flow of politics and to create a new political system," says Nobuo Sasuga, a director of the Kansai Federation of Economic Organizations.

LAME DUCK. But what kind of system, and when? Short-term, the implications are worrying. Miyazawa, forced to call late-July elections that will almost certainly end his 20-month tenure, will be a disgraced lame duck when he hosts President Clinton and other leaders of the world's seven industrial powers at their annual summit, in Tokyo, on July 7th. As such, he'll be unable to commit Japan to much of anything. Japan's ability to respond to Clinton's efforts to curb the surging $50 billion trade deficit is also at least temporarily diminished. Says a senior Clinton Administration official: "I won't pretend this doesn't make it more complicated."

What's more, the possibility that a fractious coalition will rule Japan for at least a while could undercut the government's ability to stimulate its domestic economy as a spur to world growth. Economic management is largely the province of Japan's resourceful and powerful bureaucrats. But without strong political pressure, which only the long-serving LDP knows how to apply, the ultracautious Ministry of Finance could delay further stimulus.

Longer-term, Miyazawa's overthrow almost certainly augurs a long-awaited shift of power to a younger generation of politicians, whose values and attitudes differ sharply from those of the gray old men who have run Japan since World War II. These elder statesmen have felt beholden to a powerful America, whose postwar benevolence they can't forget.

"YOUNG TURKS." By contrast, leaders now in their 50s seek a more independent, assertive Japan in keeping with its economic clout. These men want to impose greater control over the bureaucracy, push more authority to local governments, deregulate Japan's economy, and change the constitution to allow the military to take part in international peacekeeping efforts. This portends a Japan that looks a bit more like the West on one level yet retains what the Japanese regard as the best characteristics of their own system.

Just as this Japan won't necessarily be more receptive to the trade demands of the West, so too will a new Japan increasingly seek to operate as an equal with the U.S. "Some of the Young Turks of the LDP don't remember World War II or any history, and they are very difficult," says Kozo Yamamura, a Japan specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Representing the new generation are the two men who toppled Miyazawa--Ichiro Ozawa and Tsutomu Hata. Both are former LDP heavyweights and once were members of its previously dominant faction, named after former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. Ozawa, 51, has served as Minister of Home Affairs, Chief Cabinet Secretary, and secretary-general of the LDP. One of Japan's savviest political operators, Ozawa was once the prot g of the now-disgraced strongman Shin Kanemaru, and he is known for his ability to raise funds from the construction and telecommunications industries.

This money-raising ability is what gives him clout. It was Ozawa, for example, who orchestrated Japan's $9 billion contribution to Operation Desert Storm. Hata, 57, a former Minister of Agriculture and of Finance, is a silver-tongued darling of Japan's media. He, too, has been at the heart of money politics as a major figure in the agriculture zoku, the group of Dietmen who receive contributions from farmers. "To believe that Hata is an improvement over Miyazawa is the sheerest wishful thinking," says Chalmers A. Johnson, a professor at the University of California at San Diego.

A MAD SCRAMBLE. The two "rebels" began their bid for power last fall. When master-fixer Kanemaru was arrested for campaign-finance infractions, Ozawa and Hata led a walkout from the Takeshita faction. They set up their own "study group" and proclaimed the popular issue of political reform as their top priority.

It was the failure to deliver on a promise to enact political-reform legislation that brought Miyazawa down. In Japan, electoral districts send anywhere from two to six members to the House of Representatives. Since up to twice that many candidates run in each district, politicians from the same party, especially the LDP, often wind up vying against each other. This leads to campaigns based more on personality than issues and to a mad scramble for funds. Corruption can't help but follow, along with the factional system that has defined the LDP for years. The multiple LDP candidates in each district inexorably wind up winning support from one of the party's factions. Increasingly, opposition parties can no longer afford these contests. The result: entrenched LDP rule.

For some time, Ozawa and Hata have argued that one solution to Japan's money politics is replacing the multimember constituencies with single-member districts. They also say Japan can't behave like a grown-up country in world affairs until there's a viable opposition that forces real debate on issues. This, presumably, would help Japan stake out persuasive positions and even lead debate in international forums.

What lies ahead defies Japan's most clairvoyant political analysts. On June 23, Ozawa and Hata announced the formation of the new Renaissance Party. Ten other LDP Dietmen quit the mother party and formed their own new one, called the Pioneer New Party. All in all, a total of nine parties will be contending for seats in the July 18 elections.

FEAR ITSELF. Early betting says that Hata and Ozawa will wind up forging a coalition government, including members from both the LDP and the opposition. But veteran observers, noting the LDP's remarkable resilience over the years, aren't ready to count the ruling party out yet. If it wins 200 to 220 seats out of the 511 total, it could lure the Buddhist-backed Komeito Party into a coalition. Hata's group will be hard-pressed to mobilize the candidates and funds to get enough of its people elected.

Moreover, some experts, such as Robert Orr, director of the Institute for Pacific Rim Studies at Temple University Japan, note that the LDP can dredge up the "fear factor" to ask voters if other, inexperienced parties can be trusted to run the economy and U.S.-Japan relations. "Voters still feel safer with the LDP," adds Ikuo Kabashima, a professor of political science at Tsukuba University.

Undoubtedly, however, the forces Ozawa and Hata represent will ultimately prevail, if only because the older generation will have to move on. The outcome will be new Japanese leaders who have stronger ideas about what their country's role should be and how to get there. It should also gradually usher in a "civil society," in which political issues get full and free discourse, says Yasunori Sone, professor of political science at Keio University in Tokyo.

So there undoubtedly will be change in Japan, but as always, it will be slower and more subtle than the outside world expects and many Japanese voters would wish.

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