A Shame for Japan

April 17, 1994

The United States will not soon get satisfaction in its trade dispute with Japan and will have to delay ultimatums about sanctions. At the moment, there is no one in Japan with the authority to make concessions, and it may be a prolonged moment. The resignation of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa leaves confusion and weakness at least until a successor is named, and probably longer. Meanwhile, the system moves along under the lubrication of the powerful bureaucracy, which can do everything but change.

In the musical chairs of the Japanese prime ministry of recent years, Morihiro Hosokawa's name will be remembered, even though he is stepping (or falling) down after a mere eight months in office.

He presided over a coalition government that ended Liberal Democratic Party rule. He enacted political reforms of redistricting and campaign financing designed to rid politics of endemic corruption. He ushered in protectionist Japan's first rice imports, and first foreign bidding on construction contracts. His government apologized to Asian neighbors for Japanese brutality in World War II. He took women into his cabinet.

It is unlikely that any of these changes will be rolled back. Japan's politics is irreversibly more open than it was. Mr. Hosokawa's fall is a setback for further reform and for further trade agreement with the United States, which the parliament obstructed him from conceding earlier. But his accomplishments will be consolidated.

His fall is also a supreme irony. A crusader against reform, posing as shiny bright, was disgraced by revelations of past practices that were what he latterly crusaded against. It is a Japanese version of the Whitewater affair. He is tarnished by having taken shady money a full decade ago. He couldn't change the subject, and his credibility was oozing away.

The coalition he led is still in place and must pick a successor, but it is awkward and unwieldy. The formerly ruling Liberal Democrats form the biggest party and opposition in parliament, but may split. His conservative reformers are the second biggest group in parliament, dominant in the coalition, still largely led by Ichiro Ozawa, the mover and shaker who promoted Mr. Hosokawa. They still agree on political reform with their Socialist partners, but on little else.

The fall of Morihiro Hosokawa is a shame for Japan, but it does not undo his good work.

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