TOKYO -- Within hours of the sudden resignation of Japan's government yesterday, political factions began maneuvering to gain control.
But with no group holding a decisive hand and deep-seated animosities spread throughout parliament, there was little certainty about who might emerge on top or how long the process might take. The formal business of choosing a leader will begin tomorrow and end -- whenever.
In the meantime, there appears to be little interest or will on the part of the Japanese politicians to confront the problems facing the country. Members of several major political parties say recent conversations have focused almost exclusively on the pragmatic logistics of power.
Prime Minister Tsutumo Hata's decision yesterday to resign, rather than to call elections, placed the responsibility for choosing a new leader inside parliament. He justified the move ++ by saying that the result would spare the country from an extended political vacuum.
It also, however, ensures that the current array of politicians remains in parliament -- with no possibility of a majority government. An official with one of the core parties in the Hata coalition said that, because of the recent turmoil, fund raising by political parties has been horrible and, as a result, no one wanted a costly open election now.
While business leaders hastily endorsed Mr. Hata's move, suggesting it was the best of many bad alternatives, two Cabinet members, Eijiro Hata, head of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and Hirohisa Fujii, finance minister, both acknowledged that the resignation would hurt the domestic Japanese economy and efforts to reach an accord with the United States on trade.
Another area potentially compromised by the political instability concerns the cohesion of Japan, the United States and South Korea regarding North Korea's nuclear development. The Japanese government is said to be engaged in discussions with the United States to coordinate sanctions and, in the case of armed hostilities, stiffer measures against North Korea. Some of Japan's political parties outside the current government, most notably the socialists, are far more tightly wedded to Japan's pacifist constitution and have deep sympathies for North Koreans.
The most recent twist in Japan's political affairs should finally kill the country's reputation for boring, stable governance.
For almost four decades, the Liberal Democratic Party ruled Japan, a tenure broken when it was expelled from office last summer in the wake of numerous scandals.
It was replaced by a coalition of parties encompassing a wide array of views. Initially, all worked together smoothly, suggesting Japan's government could provide beneficial change. But the cohesion gradually frayed and devolved into gridlock.
The first coalition administration of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa ended after eight months when he quit because of personal financial troubles. In the end, the Hata administration served for only 59 days, the shortest tenure of any administration since the difficult period immediately after World War II.
Enfeebled from its inception, it has lasted only long enough to push through a national budget. Now, as a lame-duck caretaker administration, it will have minimal impact.
Yet, it may rise again. Among the leading contenders for the dominant role in the next administration are Tsutumo Hata and the leaders of the two largest parliamentary groups, the LDP and the Social Democratic Party.
The assumption of power by either the LDP or the socialists would be highly controversial. Each is beset with deep internal divisions and carries heavy historical baggage.
For many, the return of the LDP would be a symbolic rejection of the efforts for change that captivated the country last year. It continues to carry the legacy of scandal and, as an opposition party, has obstructed legislation while providing few, if any, alternative ideas.
The socialists have continued to support North Korea's bellicose regime, an issue of particular relevance at the moment because of concerns over North Korea's suspected nuclear program.
Already, the Japanese press has run stories suggesting South Korea is concerned by the shift in Japan's politics. Were hostilities to break out on the Korean peninsula, Japan would inevitably play a crucial role in supporting U.S. and South Korean forces. Under an interpretation of agreements between the two countries held by the Hata administration, the United States could use Japanese bases as a launching point for air raids. Others may read the contract more narrowly.
Beyond the current agreement, secret discussions are said to be under way to permit Japan to provide additional logistical help to the United States, but some crucial aspects, such as providing aviation fuel, would require a change in Japanese law that could be impossible without the active support of the Japanese government's leadership.