New Leadership for Japan

August 01, 1993

For its next prime minister, its first in four decades outside the corrupting embrace of the Liberal Democratic Party, Japan is likely to get a modernist who comes out of a ruling family, a reformer who started out in politics with the LDP, a southern governor (sound familiar?) with contempt for the Tokyo establishment, a 55-year-old member of the post-war generation whose maternal grandfather, Fumimaro Konoe, was his nation's last civilian prime minister before Pearl Harbor.

How long Morihiro Hosokawa can hold his disparate coalition of seven smallish parties together is a matter of intense speculation. What Mr. Hosokawa and his new allies have in common is, first, that they are not LDPs and, second, that their first priority is reform of a system that effectively consigned Japan to one-party rule. Beyond that, their platform is deliberately vague to bridge differences ranging from the Social Democrats on the left to the cluster of conservative parties on the right. Mr. Hosokawa's Japan New Party is one of the latter.

The Liberal Democrats, never to be underestimated, have prepared for going into the opposition by choosing Yohei Kono as their president. He is only one year older than Mr. Hosokawa and, ironically, staged a short-lived revolt against the LDP elders in the 1970s while Mr. Hosokawa remained a loyalist. The LDP will not easily allow its rivals a monopoly on motherhood and political piety.

For other nations, especially the United States, the unfolding upheaval in Japanese politics can hardly be regarded with detachment. Japan is too important. It holds the world's largest currency reserves, enjoys the world's largest trade surplus and is an economic superpower bound to exert greater political and military clout.

For the moment, its internal changes will concentrate its attention on needed domestic reforms. If Mr. Hosokawa does nothing more than change an electoral system so that Japanese voters will at last have a real choice in selecting their representatives, it will be a landmark accomplishment. But his government -- or any government -- cannot long escape other decisions. Neither Japan's prolonged recession nor world conditions will allow it.

While the Hosokawa coalition has said it will continue present economic and foreign policies, the fact is that these policies were in flux well before the revolt that brought down the LDP in July 18 elections. The Clinton administration is insisting on negotiations this fall for a new trade "framework" designed to open up Japanese markets. Russia is pushing for infusions of Japanese capital that Tokyo can hardly refuse if Moscow returns northern islands seized after World War II.

Mr. Hosokawa wants to lead Japan to a "Third Opening" -- the first being the arrival of the American fleet in the mid-1800s and the second the U.S. occupation after World War II. The difference is that this opening has to come from within.

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