Japan's political splinters are failing to reassemble

April 28, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of the Sun

TOKYO -- If there was ever any doubt about the absurdity of present-day politics in Japan, recent weeks have provided a stunning clarification.

The streets are still clean, police and fire services work as well as ever, and the only official place closed in the middle of the week is the U.S. Embassy, in honor of former President Richard M. Nixon. But beyond the day-to-day effectiveness of Japan, true national governance has dissolved into the bickering of increasingly divisive partisan politics.

Overseas leaders from Egypt and Thailand have canceled visits, and others are considering doing the same.

Legislators are scrambling to retain or create new positions for themselves after the fall of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosakawa and the designation of Tsutomu Hata as his successor. In the process, they have little time to consider grave issues such as the trade row with the United States or what steps should be taken concerning North Korea's nuclear menace.

Ironically, the chaos is a direct result of efforts begun last summer to give elected officials more power, not less. The intention of many reform-minded legislators was to shift power in Japan from its vaunted bureaucrats, who were coddled during prior administrations, to the more responsive elected officials who are directly accountable to citizens. But the officials have not been responsive -- at least not yet

"Until the Japanese political system is realigned, this is a period of bureaucratic dominance," said Professor Sadafumi Kawato of Tohoku University in Sendai. "But the bureaucrats are also at a loss; they don't want to hold responsibility for running Japanese government."

But they may have to for a while. The splitting of political parties that began last summer has become a splintering today, shattering even the illusion of cohesion.

When parties are coming together in a truly decisive way, they seem to do so more to block governance, not to lead.

On Wednesday, key members of both the Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled Japan for 38 years ending this summer, and the Democratic Socialist Party, which formed the heart of the opposition for most of that time, agreed to join forces in the Diet against the ruling coalition. Until Monday, the Socialists had been part of the coalition.

"At this moment there are three powers, and none can hold the majority themselves," Professor Kawato said.

Amid the uncertainty, Mr. Hata took the oath of office in front of Emperor Akihito early this morning and officially took over his new job. But until the changeover finally was official, the old government had to be available for emergency duty.

Reflecting the painfully slow pace of any progress, Mr. Hata, already approved by the Diet, or parliament, as the prime minister, has delayed a constitutionally mandated presentation before the emperor necessary to become prime minister until a Cabinet is formed. So he has yet to formally become prime minister.

Consequently, whenever Japan really needs a government, the one that has already resigned has be to reconstituted for emergency duty.

That occurred late Tuesday after the crash of a Taiwanese airliner in Nagoya, when the Hosokawa administration was quickly reconstituted for a final emergency.

Masayoshi Takemura, whose acrimonious split with Mr. Hosokawa contributed to the end of the Hosokawa administration and the fragility of the new Hata administration, stepped back into the critical role of chief Cabinet secretary, coordinating emergency responses from various ministries. He then passed the information to Mr. Hosokawa, who had rushed back to the prime minister's residence from his current home at a Tokyo hotel. Mr. Hosokawa in turn passed it along to Mr. Hata.

The cooperation turned out to be just an interlude. By yesterday, the cohesion seemed once again gone. To rescue his government, Mr. Hata made groveling efforts to lure Socialists back into the fold.

The head of the Social Democratic Party, Tomiichi Murayama, indicated that he would have time in his schedule today to meet with the prime minister, and there were suggestions that a Cabinet might finally be formed.

Might -- but new issues kept arising, deflecting attention from larger policy questions. In explaining efforts to include the Socialists after excluding them from a new multiparty alliance, Ichiro Ozawa, the architect of the coalition government, was quoted by Japanese reporters as having said, "It does not matter which women you may sleep with. . . . If the SDP [Social Democratic Party] felt jealous of the new alliance, they have only to come and join us."

In Japan's male-dominated political world, sexual metaphors are common -- or were common. But Mr. Ozawa's comment drew a blistering response yesterday from female members of opposition parties. One said Mr. Ozawa's comment reflected "discrimination and prejudice as if he regards women as a mere tool of sex." Another called the comment "shameful interna- tionally."

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