Democracy, Japanese Style

October 09, 1991

The disconnect between Japan's citizens and the party bosses in seemingly permanent control of the national government is illustrated once again in the downfall of Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu.

According to the latest opinion polls, Mr. Kaifu's popularity stands at a near-record 56.7 percent and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which he had rescued from a humiliating 1989 setback, is drawing 64.8 percent support -- the highest in its 38 unbroken years in power.

Such figures, however, did not deter the self-perpetuating factions that dominate the LDP and parliament from deciding they no longer needed Mr. Kaifu. So they quietly buried electoral reforms he had proposed. Getting the message, he announced he would resign as a means of accepting responsibility for this failure when his term runs out Oct. 30. Thus eight of the last nine Japanese prime ministers will have served less than three years.

Meanwhile, two political veterans tarnished in the scandals that brought Mr. Kaifu to office jumped into the running to succeed him. They evidently figured things had come full circle as the nation focused on a new set of scandals.

Did all this maneuvering outrage the Japanese people? Not by any means. As they enjoy a record economic boom now in its 58th month, they are content to let the politicians play as long as the people prosper. Nor are Japan's allies much disturbed. Foreign policy is pursued within careful parameters to nurture economic growth.

Mr. Kaifu is leaving office having come up with $13 billion to defray U.S. costs in the Persian Gulf conflict, from which he tried to stay aloof, and having put together a $2.5 billion Soviet aid package as a softener for the eventual return of four northern islands seized by Moscow at the end of World War II.

His successor will have a full plate: He will be under pressure to get the islands back once and for all. He will be trying to get past 50th-anniversary observances of Pearl Harbor without undue upset. He will try to preserve Japanese trade advantages as the European Community and the North American Free Trade Area develop as competitive regional blocs. Then there are domestic political problems. They will be taken care off by the oligarchy that passes for Japanese democracy.

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