Japan's new leader

August 11, 1993

With the formal election of Morihiro Hosokawa as prime minister, the new Japanese government needs to start implementing its shaky mandate. The coalition of eight parties that narrowly won last month's elections has made it clear what it is against: continued rule by the long-dominant Liberal Democrats. Now it has to show what it is for. Ousting the Liberal Democrats after 38 years of unbroken rule was difficult enough; governing Japan afterward will be more so.

The election result was as much a self-inflicted wound by the Liberal Democrats as it was a political victory for the disparate melange of parties that make up the governing coalition. Mr. Hosokawa himself does not have much of a mandate. The coalition was not formed until after the election. The voters did not so much select it to govern as they rejected the Liberal Democrats. So where does the new government go from here?

Since the Liberal Democrats fell mostly on the aura of corruption that suffused Japanese politics, and its inability or refusal to do anything effective to combat it, political reform necessarily is at the top of the agenda. Most of the coalition's legislators -- including Mr. Hosokawa -- rose in politics through the corrupt old system. Their enthusiasm for dramatic change may be limited, but the message from the electorate was clear on this point.

After that it becomes more difficult. The coalition ranges from conservative to socialist. By Japanese standards the economy is in distress. The United States is pressing for change in two extremely sensitive areas, liberalizing imports and expanding Japan's role in world peacekeeping. More than any other nation Japan fears North Korea's nuclear capability. Obtaining anything like a consensus on any of these issues -- even relations with North Korea -- will not be easy.

Add to that the peculiar way Japan has been governed since the rTC end of the U.S. occupation. Japanese prime ministers and cabinet members come and go, but the self-perpetuating bureaucracy has extraordinary staying power. The civil service is unusually powerful in Japan and might prove to be harder to rein in than the Liberal Democrats were. Ties between the former governing party and the bureaucrats were unusually close. In fact, many senior Liberal Democratic politicians rose first as civil servants.

Without question the Japanese voters have launched a peaceful revolution. Mr. Hosokawa may prove the man to carry it on. Another election might be necessary to give him or a successor a stronger mandate. But if Mr. Hosokawa stumbles, the resilient Liberal Democrats could discover the electoral appeal of political reform.

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