Weak within and besieged without, new Japanese Cabinet is appointed

April 29, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- After a long and chaotic gestation, a new Japanese government emerged yesterday -- opposed by many, lacking sufficient internal support, but nonetheless finally alive.

Japan's version of the White House, the Prime Minister's Residence, has been empty since early April, when Morihiro Hosokawa announced his resignation. In recent days, as the imbroglio of constituting an administration deepened, reporters actually pitched tents outside the residence, adding to the circus-like atmosphere that has transformed traditionally dull Japanese politics into national fascination and entertainment.

For weeks, an often fractious group of small parties has been trying to assemble a majority coalition, coming together briefly last week to choose a new prime minister but splitting again Tuesday before a Cabinet could be formed.

Yesterday, patience ran out. Tsutomu Hata, foreign minister and vice prime minister in the last administration, formed Japan's first minority government in almost four decades. Skepticism about its ability to survive is widespread. In the evening, he gave an initial news conference and was deluged with questions about whether his administration,and the government, can hold.

"Now we are not in a situation that mandates dissolution," he said, adding that he was aware his administration will face difficult times. That's the common Japanese phrasing for problems ranging from (rarely) mild to (more commonly) intractable.

Just before naming his new Cabinet, Mr. Hata made a final attempt to draw disenchanted Socialists back into his coalition.

Although the Socialists rejected direct involvement in the government, a private agreement was said to have been reached pledging support of the 1994 budget, already almost two months late, which was largely compiled by the prior administration, in which the Socialists were included.

Many believe that the budget, a crucial but prosaic element of governance, may be the only piece of legislation the Hata administration will be able to enact before collapsing under no-confidence motions over the truly hard issues Japan confronts.

These include relations with North Korea, deregulation of industry, and tax policy -- three complex issues that have a profound impacton the U.S.-Japanese relationship.

To bolster his support, Mr. Hata said he would continue efforts to lure back Socialists and possibly members of the opposition as well. Patched relations would not be out of character for the new prime minister. He seems to have no enemies and is known as a conciliator. But the challenge for the Hata administration may not be in its alliances but in its convictions.

His initial news conference lacked the dynamism of his predecessor, Mr. Hosokawa. Nor did he have Mr. Hosokawa's emphatic advocacy of new ideas. Mr. Hata did, however, touch in general terms on many controversial issues. Concerning trade, the most acrimonious aspect of U.S.-Japan relations, he said: "Japan must be perceived as a country with open doors" and acknowledged that it must go further to open markets.

More vaguely, Mr. Hata pledged support to the United Nations' efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear program, but he declined to say outright if Tokyo would support sanctions.

That is a particularly uncomfortable issue here. Koreans living in Japan provide critical financial support for the bellicose Stalinist state. Moreover, if China were to veto a U.N. resolution on the subject, which in turn could prompt the United States to act alone, Japan would be left to choose a side.

The new Cabinet is largely drawn from the two most conservative factions of the coalition: Komeito, which in translation means the Clean Party, and Shinseito, or Renewal Party.

Ideologically the new coalition replicates the party from which the members of Shinseito came. That's the Liberal Democratic Party, which had led Japan for 38 years before finally losing power last summer.

The new Cabinet began with a flurry of activity, scheduling official visits to Poland, France and the Middle East, pledging to review unpopular utility rate increases, pushing down the price of rice, and generally showing an initial vitality.

The most significant issue may be the numbers on its own survival. A majority requires 256 votes; the coalition now has 182 -- fewer even than the largest opposition group, the Liberal Democrats.

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