Japan wants political reform but not to the extent that anyone gets hurt

April 29, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- In a country where a single conservative party has dominated 38 years of smoke-filled rooms, suddenly the tobacco breath of every politician pleads for "kaikaku" -- reform -- with the eagerness of a suitor saying, "I love you."

But like the object of a suitor's attentions, Japan is having its doubts whether this is true love or just another guy on the make.

Even Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa -- who scoffed at do-gooders for three decades and only 17 months ago wrested the top job from reformer Toshiki Kaifu with the slogan "time to bring back the big boys" -- now never misses a chance to demand kaikaku in public.

Only the always-idiosyncratic Communist Party still openly bucks the trend. The Communists were abruptly reborn as defenders of the status quo after discovering that every reform so far proposed would wipe out many of their remaining 16 seats in the powerful lower house of the Diet, Japan's parliament.

But when the Diet got down to actually debating election laws last week, one reality became clear: For a lot more politicians than just the Communists, a politically life-threatening scene lies between today's near-universal recognition of the need and any real change.

"Almost everyone in the Diet sees his own career ending in one proposal or another," said one reformist Diet member from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). "The most likely outcome still is that we end up with nothing happening."

Feeding the kaikaku infatuation since last fall has been a flood of squalid revelations about the way Shin Kanemaru ran the country's politics during the decade when he was the man who made and unmade prime ministers, most recently Mr. Miyazawa.

At one point, Mr. Kanemaru dined with a notorious yakuza mobster to beg for political help. When tax sleuths cleaned out his house and office, they hauled away tens of millions of dollars in gold bars, anonymous bearer bonds and cash.

Humiliated and enraged by the endlessly escalating political scandals, and feeling rudderless now that there's no Cold War, Japanese from TV commentators to office tea ladies have embraced the once-alien word kaikaku and made it part of everyday small talk.

Universities find ways to work it into symposium titles. Banks and brokerage houses work it into their monthly analyses of the impact politics may have on stocks and bonds.

But reform is turning out to have almost as many definitions as proponents.

"The weather, everyone talks about but nobody does anything about," one Western diplomat said last week. "Reform, everybody in Japan talks about, but everybody has his own idea what to do about it, and everybody checks out his own skin when he looks over anybody else's plan."

That goes for Western diplomats, too.

After decades of cynically assuming that nothing would ever change either the LDP's grip on power or its "money politics," they are asking themselves not only what a new political order in Japan might look like but also how it might affect their countries' interests.

One favorite scenario among both Japanese and foreign analysts holds that, with or without new election laws, the country will somehow work its way into a two-party system in the next year or two, possibly even before the lower house election that must be held by February.

"No matter what the scenario, and there are plenty of them out there, I think there's a strong chance that it will play itself out before the next election," said Kazuo Aichi, of a 35-member reform faction in the LDP. "The best solution might be a period with a coalition government, in which the LDP would not be in charge. But the end result has to be a two-party system."

Exactly how to get from here to two-party government, nobody ever says very clearly. Most "scenarios" call vaguely for some reform-minded LDP members to make common cause with some unspecified individuals who would break away from the Socialists and maybe the Buddhist Clean Government Party.

Western diplomats agree that a two-party system might create a more open and democratic Japan.

But European and U.S. diplomats, long accustomed to getting things done by knowing where power lay in the LDP, say a two-party Japan would be both good news and bad news.

"Two-party democracies have a lot of advantages, but most of them are for the local people, not for foreigners who have to deal with them," one said. "Issues like trade controversies and security treaties tend to get caught up in campaign debates, and an election can reverse policies in mid-course."

At the same time, routine changes of power in Japanese politics might produce the more forceful leadership American officials have long said Japan lacked.

"A system that makes a prime minister of a policy-bankrupt special-interest broker like Noboru Takeshita is a system that is no longer useful," Mr. Aichi said of one of Mr. Kanemaru's picks.

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