Japan's blunt new leader Ryutaro Hashimoto: Prime minister is assertive champion of familiar policies.

January 20, 1996

AT LAST JAPAN has a prime minister who is good at kendo, the martial art of dueling with bamboo swords. The newly formed Japanese government is the same as the old, with musical chairs. Its policies will not differ. Some personalities will, notably that of the prime minister, replacing the self-effacing Socialist, Tomiichi Murayama, with Liberal Democratic Party chief Ryutaro Hashimoto, who is a vigorous, blunt-talking representative of a more assertive Japan.

He is best known to Americans as a tough adversary in the automobile trade talks last year. Trade Minister Hashimoto likened his tactics to kendo: "If you don't pay attention to your rival, you get hit on the head." He paid U.S. trade negotiator Mickey Kantor the compliment of being "more scary than even my wife when I come home drunk." This is a change in style from traditional Japanese diplomacy.

Mr. Hashimoto also advocates close U.S.-Japanese security cooperation, the U.S. military presence and a role for Japanese service personnel overseas. He will host President Clinton's visit in April on the same terms that Mr. Murayama would have.

Domestically, Mr. Hashimoto will take the blame for a sluggish economy. To face public wrath for an expensive bail-out of mortgage firms, Socialist Party chief Wataru Kubo is willing to take on the suddenly thankless job of finance minister.

The greatest reaction to the new prime minister's assertive personality will come from Asian neighbors. Mr. Hashimoto is a leader of the sentiment that honors Japan's war dead and sees little need to apologize for colonization and brutalization of Asian neighbors.

South Korea, an economic giant as well as a former victim of Japanese occupation, welcomed Mr. Murayama's apology and would take umbrage at its repudiation. It does not help that the Japanese official effort to find private contributors to a reparation fund for Korean women kidnapped into prostitution in the 1930s and '40s, is failing. Improving relations with South Korea is now Mr. Hashimoto's task.

There are benefits of having a political leader who says forthrightly what he means. But Mr. Hashimoto will hold office only until an election, probably late in the year, deals with scandal, protectionism and the poor economy.

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