Japan's Weakest Government Ever

May 01, 1994

The United States is unlikely to get help from Japan in pressing North Korea to abandon the quest for nuclear weaponry. Washington cannot realistically expect agreement soon on measures to end Japan's huge trade surplus with the U.S.

Either of these would require a Japanese government strong enough to fend off domestic pressures and civil service inertia against doing any such thing. The government formed with the former foreign minister, Tsutomu Hata, as prime minister is the weakest imaginable, subject to journalistic and political ridicule from birth.

The most that anyone in Japan hopes from the Hata government is that it enact a budget, now overdue, before the parliament recesses at the end of June. The chances of the government falling and calling a new election are great. The catch is that a premature election would not come under the reforms recently enacted to free Japanese politics from corruption, and would benefit the traditional Liberal Democratic and Social Democratic parties rather than the new reform coalition.

The fall of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa from old embarrassments deprives the reform coalition of its moral authority. The Hata cabinet consists of ministers who defected from the now-ousted Liberal Democratic Party rather than go down with it. The political kingmaker, Ichiro Ozawa, thought he could break the Socialists by excluding them and picking up their defectors. Instead, their 74 votes put a minority regime in power and can bring it down any time.

The Hata government commands just 187 votes in the 511-member lower house, while the opposition Liberal Democratic Party has 206. Mr. Hata needs the Socialists as much as he would have with them in his coalition. The Ozawa scheme to realign Japanese politics on two rival pro-business parties, rather than on pro-business Liberal Democrats and anti-business Socialists, has stumbled.

For the long run, the U.S. government cannot abandon its quest for open markets in Japan and a level playing field for American business. In the short run, it cannot expect to obtain measurable improvements. The political paralysis in Tokyo is not really a conspiracy to prevent concessions to the U.S. on trade and cooperation on foreign policy. It just works out that way.

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