TOKYO -- For millions of disgusted Japanese, the question is whether yesterday's ouster of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa will force any real change in Japan's corruption-laden politics. For millions of foreigners, including Americans, the question is what the change will mean for next month's G-7 summit and for Japan's trade policies.
Scores of ruling party rebels helped opposition legislators win a vote of no confidence against Mr. Miyazawa with unexpected ease.
The 255-220 vote in the lower house of the Diet, Japan's parliament, forces an election and makes the leader of the world's No. 2 economic power a lame duck -- or a "dead body," in Japanese political slang. The election is expected to be held a few weeks after the Tokyo Summit of the world's seven top industrial powers.
The election promises to be one of the hardest to fathom since the Liberal Democratic Party was formed in 1955 from a collection of conservative factions. The party has never spent a day out of power.
Before the vote, Mr. Miyazawa, 73, sat silently with moist eyes and with his face in a grimace so tight that his lips frequently disappearedinto his mouth. Speakers arose one after another to call him a "liar" for repeatedly promising political reform but knuckling under Tuesday when hard-line bosses of his Liberal Democratic Party said no.
"You will go into the records not only as a liar but also as one of the most incompetent prime ministers in our history," Sadao Yamahana, the Socialist Party leader, told the prime minister.
"Of course, you have to stay in office through the G-7 summit, because you speak English so well," said a mocking Ichiro Watanabe, head of the Clean Government Party. "But in what the Japanese people are demanding -- political reform -- always, always, your response was too late and wrong."
Diplomats and trade officials have kept a stiff upper lip through this week's political turmoil, insisting that it won't affect their positions. Japan's policies on technical issues such as trade are set more by bureaucrats than by politicians.
But trade issues have become too big in recent years to be kept out of summit meetings. How trade partners will confront Japan under a lame-duck prime minister remains to be seen. But President Clinton will face new frustrations in his drive for a showdown over Japan's $50 billion-a-year trade surplus with the United States.
Last night's rebellion was unprecedented in LDP history.
At least 10 younger Diet members announced that they were leaving the party because its entrenched elders seem unable to comprehend how revolted the public is.
The 10 were among at least 16 who took a walk rather than support Mr. Miyazawa. An additional 39 went the rest of the way and became the first LDP members to vote for an opposition no-confidence motion.
LDP rebels and opposition parties have their eyes on poll results that show Mr. Miyazawa's Cabinet with 9 percent approval rating and 76 percent disapproval rating, the worst showing of any prime minister in four decades of polling.
But Japan's fractious opposition parties have never put together a coalition that could field enough candidates to form a majority, even in the improbable event that every one of their hopefuls won.
Whether they can capitalize on the current wave of voter revulsion remains to be seen.
Despite widespread voter outrage with the LDP, opposition parties will confront the conservatives' reputation as the brokers who oversaw Japan's rise from ashes to the world's No. 2 economic power. They also will have their own reputations as political buffoons to overcome.
Mr. Miyazawa is only the fourth prime minister since World War II to lose a no-confidence vote and is only the second to do so since the LDP came to power in 1955.
Last night was the second time his tenure in high office has ended prematurely. In 1989, he resigned as finance minister after abandoning a succession of cover stories about his role in the Recruit political money scandal.
Only 19 months ago, Mr. Miyazawa himself ousted the ineffectual reformer Toshiki Kaifu on a campaign promise to "bring back the big boys" and make government effective again.
Instead, almost from the day it took office, his government has been rocked by ever-deepening scandals. The worst involved the arrest of disgraced kingmaker Shin Kanemaru, the "big boy" who put Mr. Miyazawa, Mr. Kaifu and two other prime ministers in power.
Forcing real change in Japan's corruption-laden politics has been at least the publicly avowed goal of virtually every politician, even battle-scarred LDP bosses, ever since public revulsion welled up in March at the televised sight of investigators carrying tens of millions of dollars in bearer bonds, gold bars and cash out of Mr. Kanemaru's houses and offices.
For three months, the focus has been on finding a way to legislate the "reconstruction" of the political system.
But the LDP bosses' idea of "reform" was single-seat districts that would make their own majorities even bigger. Opposition "reform" bills called for proportional representation formulas calculated to assure that the LDP could never again have a majority.
As the focus shifts to the election, the first practical tests may come for a quite different but frequently discussed vision of change in Japanese politics.
That vision calls for some unspecified "realignment" of political groupings.
One version sees a new party as philosophically conservative as the LDP but less corrupt taking shape around Tsutomu Hata, a former finance minister and leader of 35-member rebel LDP group that cast 34 votes for the no-confidence motion.
Such a party would have to pull together disparate forces, including LDP rebels, centrist elements from opposition parties 0nd perhaps some candidates new to politics.