TOKYO -- The third Japanese government in less than a year fell this morning, resigning minutes before almost certain
rejection in a parliamentary no-confidence vote.
The abrupt end to the 2-month-old administration of Tsutomu Hata merely continued the chaos that has characterized Japanese politics since last summer.
The collapse comes as a potential crisis lurks just a few hundred miles away in Korea that, were it to erupt, would require numerous political decisions by the Japanese government -- including changes in law to permit full assistance for U.S. military operations.
Moreover the resignation will undoubtedly add yet another level to the continuing trade talks necessitated by Japan's record surpluses and the resulting steep rise in the value of its currency.
In early July, the so-called G-7 group of the seven major economic powers is scheduled to meet, and Japan's economic situation is certain to be a primary focus.
During similar meetings in the recent past, Japanese officials have explained their delay in taking the difficult political steps that would be necessary to truly open up and deregulate their domestic economy to foreign goods by pointing to their fragile political situation.
Since the day the Hata administration was formed, the likelihood that this pattern of collapse would be repeated has been openly discussed within the Japanese government.
Nothing about the demise of the Hata administration came as a surprise.
Opposition leaders have consistently vowed to pull the plug on the minority government once a long-delayed budget was passed for the current fiscal year. The budget finally passed early this week, and the rest occurred as expected.
Mr. Hata struggled against the inevitable for weeks and rejected any hint of resignation as recently as last night, arguing that nothing would be gained and that no fault could be found with his administration.
Fruitless negotiations with opposition leaders continued throughout the morning hours.
In announcing his capitulation during an quickly called news conference shortly before noon, when a no-confidence vote was scheduled to be held in Parliament, Mr. Hata vowed to end "the political vacuum" that would have been an inevitable result of a rejection of his administration by Parliament, including the prospect of time-consuming and costly elections.
Now, alternatively, there will be negotiations among the numerous political parties that make up Japan's increasingly complex political landscape.
Estimates vary widely on how long it may take to reach a resolution.
Oddly, given his resignation, Mr. Hata is probably the most likely can didate to emerge as the compromise choice of the opposing groups, but leaders of the opposition parties have emphasized that the field is open.
One possibility is a new coalition with representation from all major political groups -- a strange outcome, given that Japan's current instability began last summer in response to widespread demands for political change.
The new, broader, coalition could include the Liberal Democratic Party, which had led Japan for decades before being booted by disgusted voters last summer, and the Social Democratic Party.
Throughout the long tenure of the LDP, the Socialists had served as the primary opposition.
They participated in the first coalition government this summer, before angrily walking away after having been excluded from a new political amalgamation of other coalition parties.
Missing from the current political upheaval is any sense of popular demand for change.
The initial coalition government, head by Morihiro Hosokawa, enjoyed record-breaking popularity, and the Hata administration received support from a majority of the populace.