Japan's leader powerless on economy Prime minister lacks authority to tackle task

June 21, 1998|By Bernard D. Kaplan

PARIS -- Western governments have been unanimous in demanding that Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto initiate sweeping reforms designed to rescue his country's critically sagging economy before it drags down the rest of the world.

But the problem is that Hashimoto, like most of his predecessors, lacks both the authority and the prestige even to contemplate such a task.

Hashimoto is a minor personage, chosen as a figurehead leader precisely because his political influence is all but nonexistent.

That is how most post-World War II Tokyo governments have operated: The real power brokers behind the scenes nominate straw men to head the government because they're expendable and offer little prospect of interfering with the authentic policy-makers, who have usually been potent and unassailable bureaucrats, invisible to the public.

Official leaders such as Hashimoto come and go, forgotten soon after they've left office.

Remarkably, many Western officials are either ignorant of how Japan is run or have no idea of what to do about it.

"Does one tell a [Japanese] cabinet minister that we are aware he is a puppet and that we wish to deal with someone with genuine authority?" asked Edouard Lejeune, a retired French diplomat who served in Tokyo. "Obviously, that is impossible."

According to historian Richard Eluard, a specialist on Japan, politics there "have always been a shadow play, with the true makers and shakers moving silently in the dark."

For most of the past half-century, the Liberal Democratic Party has officially monopolized power. However, the LDP is divided into factions, warring against one another and each allied to a different group of bureaucrats. Hashimoto is a junior member of one of these factions. His status stems from his rank within the party and not from his position as prime minister.

"Hashimoto's government has come up with several plans to revive the economy, but all have been half-hearted and some even contradictory -- reflecting the contending vested interests involved in drafting them," said Eluard, who has written several books on Japan. "The inevitable consequence is that conditions have steadily worsened. Hashimoto has been little more than an ineffectual bystander, having to accept what he was given."

United States and other worried Western officials have agreed for some time that Japan's pressing need is to stimulate domestic demand for goods and services. Japanese consumers have zipped up their wallets and aren't buying -- partly because of their lack of confidence in their rulers, exacerbated by the sinking yen.

But increasing consumer demand would mean lowering taxes and relaxing monopolistic conditions, which have kept prices and profit margins much higher than in many other countries. But clamping down on monopolies is strongly opposed by powerful bureaucrats in the finance ministry, the ministry of industry and elsewhere.

So, for the moment, Western pleas are getting little response.

Bernard D. Kaplan writes for Hearst Newspapers.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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