Japan's prime minister speaks up

January 16, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- He likes jazz, runs a country and publicly dumps on Japan's lack of international responsibility and its intransigent bureaucracy. Moreover, he wants the English-speaking world to know how he feels.

In short, he could be any of a number of national leaders -- which is probably just the point. Japan's Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa considers himself part of the outside world. In case that message hasn't gotten out, he has gone beyond what the country's Foreign Ministry says any prime minister has done in memory by publishing an English-language translation of his thoughts while still in office.

The book, "The Time to Act Is Now," could not be more appropriately titled, for not only is the United States increasingly vexed by what it calls Japan's economic intransigence, but Mr. Hosokawa's role as the country's leader hangs on whether he can goad the Diet, or parliament, to act on a bill to reform Japan's ossified political system. Odds on his success vary daily.

If he is unable to secure passage by the end of this month, his only ability to bring about "change," a word often used in his writing, will likely be from his administration to another.

The book, largely a condensation of several volumes written in Japanese, was rushed into print after he had been in office only three months, just in time for him to hand a copy to President Clinton when they met in Seattle in November.

Only recently has it become widely available in Japan, a few weeks before Mr. Hosokawa's departure for what both Japanese and U.S. officials have described as a pivotal meeting between the two leaders Feb. 11 in Washington.

If Mr. Clinton is to use the meeting to merely chastise Japan for its role in the bilateral relationship or for being politically unresponsive, he is unlikely to be able to deliver as scathing a critique of Japan as Mr. Hosokawa does in his book:.

"Japanese society suffers from a self-centered nature, a fascination with the superficial and a refusal to accept responsibility. Because of such attitudes, whenever reforms are attempted, everyone rushes to protect existing rights and the reform effort stalls.

"When first becoming a Diet member, I assumed that I could achieve something. Unfortunately, I found that the legislative branch functioned as an extension of the central bureaucracy and was controlled by special interests."

When the two leaders meet, a main point of discussion will be U.S. contentions that Japan's markets are biased, a circumstance the United States contends is also hurting Japan. Mr. Hosokawa readily agrees: "The roots of the lengthy and worsening economic downturn can . . . be linked to the long-term presence of inefficient systems and other structural problems in our economy. Nowhere is this better symbolized than in the price gap between products from Japan and abroad."

He suggests a radical revision of Japan's sober work habits. He observed during a visit to France that "researchers worked in swimming trunks and sandals. This type of resort atmosphere where people enjoy themselves during work is wonderful."

As a former governor of a distant prefecture, he is emphatic about wanting to break up the concentration of political and economic power in Tokyo .

The book is not all criticism. Mr. Hosokawa gives his vision of a different Japan, with more greenery, culture, informality and idiosyncrasies.

In a striking departure from politics and the practices of most Japanese officials, the prime minister gives his impression on other facets of life.

Mr. Hosokawa comments on marriage (his wife initially rejected him); style (thumbs down to cuff links, tie clips, excessive buttons on suits and headbands); golf, a Japanese obsession ("it does not have the excitement of a real sport"); music ("jazz has given me fresh inspiration"); and the local press ("Foreigners often say that one only has to look at a single Japanese newspaper to know what they all say. This cannot be denied").

Under the heading of "Life's Greatest Pleasure," he lists bird watching.

When it came to a choice of historic role models, always a symbolically important selection among Japanese executives, Mr. Hosokawa cites Nobunaga Oda, a man who looked at situations "unencumbered by the obstacles of polite traditions,"

according to the prime minister.

The choice is curious. Oda did manage to unify much of Japan in the mid-1500s, but his methods were objectionable.

"Oda was the first to make decisive movements, but he is also known for his cruelty," said William Steele, a history professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.

Perhaps Mr. Hosokawa envies Oda's strength, particularly because of obstacles the prime minister has faced getting legislation through the Diet.

But it is questionable whether that style would be a good strategy and particularly odd given Mr. Hosokawa's penchant for avoiding confrontation, demonstrated repeatedly in the five months that he has led an unwieldy coalition government.

"The ones that are successful in Japan aren't the ones that ram things through, they are not the Odas, they are conciliators," Mr. Steele said. "Clinton is like that. So is Hosokawa."

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