Japan's new leader fought tide and won

July 30, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Postwar Japan has no story to parallel Morihiro Hosokawa's 15-month rise from virtual political early retirement to the prime ministership.

Fourteen months ago, Mr. Hosokawa created a new political party from little more than promises of good intentions, a telegenic smile and a hunch that voters were at last ready for a change.

Yesterday, leaders of seven opposition parties, which united this week and will throw out the Liberal Democrats after 38 unbroken years in power, named him as their candidate for prime minister. The formal vote will take place soon after the newly elected Diet, Japan's parliament, convenes early in August.

"I will humbly accept this mission from heaven," Mr. Hosokawa said. Rooting out this country's endemic political corruption will be his top priority, he added.

The party leaders signed an agreement pledging themselves to pass political reform legislation this year. In foreign and domestic policies, they agreed to continue the basic LDP policies.

For more than three decades, the making of prime ministers of Japan has consisted of big money, patience over decades, and -- above all -- loyalty to the Liberal Democratic Party and at least one of its faction bosses.

"I believe the people of Japan have had their fill of scandal, and I believe they want to vote for conservatives they can respect," Mr. Hosokawa said in May 1992, soon after he launched the Japan New Party.

He then set out to cobble together a slate of candidates for an election to the Diet's upper house that was only weeks away.

Out of little more than a few well-attended news conferences, his own low-key personality and a handful of well-known names on his candidates list, Mr. Hosokawa created a political party that won a respectable four seats in the upper house less than two months later.

Family tradition

The credibility he gained won him ever-expanding time on television, where he turned out to be unexpectedly effective. He comes through as soft-spoken, self-effacing, self-assured and just slightly aloof -- a manner some attribute to his descent from a samurai family that ruled a large part of southern Japan for several centuries under the Fujiwara shoguns.

Not only his bearing but a tradition of standing up to authority has come down from his family.

His maternal grandfather, Prince Fumimaro Konoe, was prime minister twice in the years leading up to World War II, an age of equally rancid politics.

The prince, too, found himself in opposition to the establishment. He was the last civilian prime minister, ousted by Gen. Hideki Tojo. When Tojo forced through the plan to attack Pearl Harbor, Prince Konoe's was one of the few voices in Japan's inner councils that unequivocally opposed war with the United States.

Few Japanese voters show much interest in that family history, and Mr. Hosokawa does not bring it up in public. But he acknowledges, when asked, that consciousness of it has something to do with the streak of independence that runs through his political career.

He was no political neophyte when he started his Japan New Party last year.

A former reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's most respected papers, he started his political career at age 33, the youngest-ever member of the Diet's upper house. He served two terms, from 1971 to 1983.

When he entered the Diet, his political boss was none other than Kakuei Tanaka, godfather of the "money politics" system Mr. Hosokawa now vows to overthrow.

Rebellion was not his style in those days.

In fact, a historical irony of next month's Diet vote will be that the losing LDP candidate most likely will be Yohei Kono, who is expected to be elected LDP president today.

In 1976, Mr. Kono led the New Liberal Club out of the LDP -- to protest Mr. Tanaka's central role in the Lockheed bribery scandal -- and the young Mr. Hosokawa refused to join the rebellion.

But Mr. Hosokawa walked away from the national scene in 1983 and won election as governor of Kumamoto prefecture. In that job, he came to detest Japan's centralized bureaucracy and its grip on every facet of political and administrative life.

When a water shortage struck Tokyo in the summer of 1987, the comment from the governor of Kumamoto was: "It serves Tokyo right."

In 1991, with re-election to a third term as governor all but automatic, he did something few Japanese politicians ever contemplate: He refused to run.

Politicians become corrupt if they linger in power too long, he said.

Deep frustration

In political early retirement, he served as head of a government-sponsored committee to improve the quality of life. That experience only deepened his frustration with the arrogance of bureaucrats.

He cites this as a key factor, along with new rounds of LDP scandals, in his decision last year to try something rarely seen in Japan -- organizing a political party that would appeal to voters from the grass roots up, on issues -- rather than from the top down, by passing out money.

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