Leaderless Japan

June 19, 1993

There cannot be much hope that Japan will agree to overhaul the trade imbalance with the U.S. in talks in Tokyo on June 27-28. Or that the Group of Seven summit in Tokyo on July 7-9 will bring a new trilateral understanding among North America, Europe and Japan.

Japan is distracted by a political crisis without precedent in its postwar history. It will go to the summit represented by a prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, who has just been humiliated by a no-confidence vote caused by defectors in his all-powerful but all-tottering Liberal Democratic Party.

Japan's election after the summit could -- just might, probably won't -- realign Japanese politics. Mr. Miyazawa's popularity rating has sunk to 9 percent, in large measure because of an unending series of scandals affecting LDP leaders. He lost a confidence vote in the 512-member lower house by 255 to 220 as 39 members of his party voted with the opposition or abstained.

With the economy growing at only .08 percent in the year ended March 31, half what the government predicted, the time is not propitious for Japan's permanent ruling machinery to make unpopular concessions. The time rarely is.

Mr. Miyazawa is a 73-year-old professional at international economic relations who was put in office after a scandal, only to have his own chief backer go to jail for taking money from a mob-tainted firm. He had promised the opposition parties an electoral reform, which was vetoed by LDP faction bosses.

Currently, Japan's lower house is elected in districts of two to six legislators, with members of the same party competing more on graft than policy. The LDP wants to create 500 single-member districts, which it would disproportionately win; the opposition wants proportional representation; nothing is happening. That produced the no confidence vote and the unmannerly jibe: "The prime minister is a liar!" If he is, the LDP feudal chieftains made him one.

Facing the election which must be held within 40 days, the LDP is a shambles. It is a coalition of greed and self-interest. The opposition parties of left and right, however, are no coalition at all. The big question is whether 35 LDP defectors in a faction led by former Finance Minister Tsutomu Hata, who brought the government down, will return to the LDP fold or form a new conservative party. With such domestic preoccupations, no one should expect much from a mere Group of Seven summit.

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