Fresh Air in Japan

August 25, 1993

Morihiro Hosokawa probably will not remain prime minister of Japan long, but he is making the most of his brief experience at the head of a fragile eight-party coalition dedicated to radical reform. So far, his changes are of style and rhetoric. But they break taboos, and the taboos are likely to remain superseded after Mr. Hosokawa has left the scene.

In a press conference and in his first policy speech to the parliament, Mr. Hosokawa apologized for Japanese imperialism in the 1930s and 1940s. This is what Japan's neighbors in China, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma and Indonesia waited decades to hear. It is what successive Japanese prime ministers could not bring themselves to say.

On economic policy, he said what President Clinton wanted to hear, which is remarkably close to what Japanese of modest incomes want to hear. He promised "to work vigorously for expanded domestic demand and improved market access" for foreign products to reduce Japan's trade surplus. Better living standards, not economic super-prowess, are his goals. If ordinary Japanese people saved less and spent more on freely imported goods, they would have a better material life and U.S. firms would sell more stuff.

To promise deregulation and decentralization is not to deliver. He was roundly heckled in the closed session of parliament by the Liberal Democrats he has relegated to opposition. Mr. Hosokawa bowed to the permanent bureaucracy by ruling out deficit spending to prime the pump.

But he has brought change in language and body language outside parliament. Where predecessors vaguely addressed pre-submitted written questions at press conferences, Mr. Hosokawa gave crisp answers to spontaneous questions. He was even televised on a Saturday playing tennis, repudiating workaholism, saying that weekend recreation is OK.

Mr. Hosokawa is not likely to enact much of the economic reform that the U.S. seeks. If his disparate coalition has one overriding mandate, it is to put electoral reform in place to diminish corruption before the next election, in which the LDP might come back to power.

But in image and symbol, the taboos he has broken will remain broken, the words will remain said, the previously unthinkable will be discussed. It is a breath of fresh air. And it makes him, according to the latest opinion polls, the most publicly supported prime minister in memory.

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