Reborn 'reformist' leads new Japanese party, is favored for prime ministership

June 24, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Remember the agriculture minister who said Japan couldn't import more U.S. beef because "Japanese have longer intestines than Americans" and find the stuff hard to digest?

Don't laugh.

Yesterday, the author of that much-ridiculed 1987 remark became the head of Japan's fastest-rising new political party.

He says he wants to "reform" Japan's politics, give the country's long-suffering consumers a better break and take a bolder role in world affairs.

Since leading the rebellion that brought down Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's government in a no-confidence vote last Friday, former Finance Minister Tsutomu Hata, 57, has become the heavy favorite for prime minister if a coalition government ends 38 years of rule by the Liberal Democratic Party in next month's parliamentary election.

"We believe it is crucial to carry out political reform, including electoral system reform, in order to restore the public's trust in politicians," Mr. Hata said yesterday. He spoke at an afternoon news conference announcing the founding of the "Shinseito," or Renaissance Party.

For months now, similar "reform" pronouncements have helped make Mr. Hata the most visible figure in Japan's biggest political upheaval since the Liberal Democratic Party took power in 1955.

He also gets a boost from the Japanese and foreign reporters who cover him.

"Reporters love him because he will take time to talk with them and try to give direct answers to direct questions," Hiro Saito, a magazine editor, said yesterday. "I don't know if ordinary people like him so much, but he gets such good press it's got to help him."

It is heady stuff for a man who spent most of the last two decades living the LDP career some Japanese call "dairy farming" -- feeding and milking the political system -- which he now seeks to dismantle.

Inherited political office

Like many members of the Diet, Japan's parliament, Mr. Hata did not so much run for office the first time as inherit it.

When his father, a rural lawmaker, fell ill in 1969, Mr. Hata dropped his job of ten years, planning tours for a bus company. His father's surname and organization made him an instant member of the Diet.

Within the LDP, he rose for 24 years as a follower of the money-laden faction leaders now disgraced by an increasingly corrupt party's most spectacular scandals: former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, the Lockheed bribery scandal of the 1970s; former prime minister Noboru Takeshita, the Recruit stock scandal of the 1980s; kingmaker Shin Kanemaru, the Sagawa Kyubin mobsters-and-money scandal of the 1990s.

Reborn as a "reformer" only in the past three years, he now glosses over those earlier decades.

"I have engaged in messy political power plays," he has said, "but now the world is changed and it is impossible to continue those plays."

Mr. Hata's move to prominence began last fall, when Mr. Kanemaru resigned from the Diet after being charged with taking gigantic illegal "campaign contributions."

Backed by Ichiro Ozawa, Mr. Kanemaru's chief protege and Mr. Hata's long-time political friend, he set out to take over Mr. Kanemaru's faction within the LDP.

When that failed last December, Mr. Hata and Mr. Ozawa led 34 members of the Diet's powerful lower house in walking out to form a Hata faction within the LDP. It was that same faction that became the base for this month's rebellion.

Mr. Ozawa is the Shinseito's chief political technician, fund-raiser and vote counter, but he has kept out of the spotlight since the beginning of last week's crisis.

He was present but stayed in the wings at yesterday's press conference.

Cabinet minister three times

Many of the "reform" politicians outside Mr. Hata's faction have stayed outside chiefly because they don't want to get close to Mr. Ozawa.

Many feel Mr. Ozawa's ties to his mentor, the disgraced Mr. Kanemaru, were so close that he might one day be shown to have been caught up in the old kingmaker's corruption.

Some of Mr. Hata's self-confessed "messy political plays" made him a Cabinet minister three times -- agriculture minister once and finance minister twice.

Today, polls suggest that those stints in the Cabinet will help him and Shinseito build credibility with voters far faster than new parties usually manage. One poll showed that Shinseito already was the choice of 9 percent of the voters -- second only to the the LDP's 13 percent, its lowest ever -- two days before the new party even formally organized or had a name.

If a coalition government takes over from the LDP's decades-long grip on power in Japan after the July 18 election, those tours in the Cabinet also will be one of his prime assets in seeking the premiership. No other party but the LDP itself has a leader with comparable government experience.

Tentative public support

Heady as the past seven days have been, what lies between forging 44 resigned LDP Dietmen into a new party yesterday and any prospect of becoming prime minister next month will test Mr. Hata's and Mr. Ozawa's skill, stamina and luck.

One suggestion of how much remains to be done came with publication yesterday of a poll of Tokyo residents.

It showed that 61 percent of the people interviewed approve the revolt he led.

But it also showed that 62 percent favoring a coalition government radically different from the one Mr. Hata seeks. The same percent said that the best possible election outcome would be to have the LDP weakened so much it had to share power with one or more other parties.

The poll, by the respected national newspaper Asahi Shimbun, showed that only 24 percent favored Mr. Hata's stated goal, a coalition of new "reform" parties and old-line oppositionists with no LDP. Barely 6 percent preferred to see the LDP in sole power.

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