In Japan's Corner, A Resolute Infighter

With his Elvis sideburns and wicked wit, International Trade & Industry Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto scarcely fits the role of Japanese mandarin. Then there's his penchant for caustic outbursts. When U.S.-Japanese trade talks collapsed on May 5, Hashimoto likened his dealings with U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor to returning home to face his angry wife after a late-night drinking session.

Irreverent, yes. But Hashimoto's in-your-face style is playing well with Japanese voters worried about the runaway yen and resentful of America's trade brinksmanship. A former Finance and Foreign Minister, Hashimoto, 57, is emerging as a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) heavyweight who is showing Japan how to say "no" to America. "There is a sense that the U.S. has set out to destroy the Japanese economy through manipulation of the currency rates," says James Abegglen, a professor of international business at Tokyo's Sophia University.

GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY. Hashimoto's brashness seems certain to enhance his ambitions to become Prime Minister. His shot at the top could come soon. Japan's incredible political morass--three governments have fallen since 1993--has resulted in incredibly weak leadership. Stung by the government's poor handling of the Kobe earthquake in January, the approval rating of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama plummeted to 39.1% in April. Murayama's grab-bag coalition, dominated by the LDP and his own Social Democratic Party, looks vulnerable. "Murayama is already gone," says Yasunori Sone, a political scientist at Keio University. "He's a lame duck." However, the rival New Frontier Party, formed by LDP defector Ichiro Ozawa, hasn't shown much appeal with voters, either.

With a general election likely late this year or in early 1996, the probusiness LDP will probably maintain control of any new government. That means the next Prime Minister may well come from the LDP's ranks. Hashimoto is on the short list, as is Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, who warned on May 9 that U.S.-Japanese trade ties were getting too "emotional." Both men are representative of a new generation moving into key decision-making posts. Unlike their elders, their perceptions of the U.S. aren't shaped by America's benevolence in the years immediately following World War II.

The son of an occupation-era Cabinet minister--he was a second-grader when the U.S. bombed Japan into submission in 1945--Hashimoto has long viewed America more as a rival than a protector. His early career as an executive of a textile company was deeply influenced by U.S. trade restrictions on Japanese cotton goods in the 1960s. If Hashimoto's political ambitions prevail, Washington will be facing the most assertive Japanese Prime Minister in postwar history.

DON'T BULLDOZE. Hashimoto occasionally shocks American visitors. At a U.S.-Japanese business meeting in February, he lit into Caterpillar Chairman Donald V. Fites when Fites asked if the government shouldn't push Japanese auto dealers to be more open to U.S. goods. Departing from talking points crafted by MITI bureaucrats, Hashimoto said Japan would give in "if you Americans force IBM dealerships to sell Fujitsu and NEC computers," according to one U.S. businessman who attended the affair.

That kind of chutzpah is gaining more currency in a Japan that is edgy about its economy and less worried about offending the U.S. "The best that we can do for relations right now is to get the trade dispute over with," frets U.S. Ambassador to Japan Walter F. Mondale. If Hashimoto rises to the top, however, Washington may find that it faces a leader who has a taste for settling old scores.