Japan's revolving premiership


Economy: Yoshiro Mori and his recent predecessors have lacked staying power because of poor decisions on ending the nation's long recession.

March 20, 2001|By SUN STAFF

On paper, Japan possesses all the qualities desirable for a modern democracy: Its economy is the second most powerful in the world, the national work ethic is strong, businesses have a mastery of high technology, and cooperation between industry and government is high.

What it has lacked in recent years is a strong, charismatic prime minister at the head of the government. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who met yesterday with President Bush in Washington, is the country's 10th prime minister in 13 years and is expected to be replaced by the 11th next month.

Mori's career mimics that of most of his recent predecessors. He won election to Japan's parliament at an early age as a member of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, and carefully nurtured alliances within the party. Senior members of the LDP have in effect taken turns as premier, each calling in the favors due him when it came time for the party to elect a leader.

And becoming leader of the LDP has usually been synonymous with becoming premier. Parliament chooses the premier, and that person is the leader of the majority party or of the majority coalition. From World War II to 1993, the majority party was always the LDP.

Mori has suffered stunning lows in polls - his "favorable" ratings in national surveys have fallen to as low as 10 percent. He has often been a victim of his words and deeds. Mori attracted criticism by calling Japan a "divine nation," and by deciding to finish a round of golf after he heard about the Feb. 9 collision off Hawaii of a U.S. submarine and a Japanese fishing trawler that killed nine Japanese.

But above all, he and his predecessors have suffered from the government's poor policy choices for ending Japan's long recession. The country is suffering from deflation, when prices and values fall.

Japan's central bank announced yesterday that it would revert to a policy of almost zero interest rates. But it is not clear whether the measure will work without reforms of the banking system and other actions by the government. A policy of zero interest rates was in effect until August and failed to cure the country's recession.

If deflation continues, the falling prices will lead to falling income and profits. If the central bank's latest moves fail, there will be little else the bank can do.

After their two-hour meeting at the White House, Mori and Bush offered no specifics about the actions they would take. "The leaders," their joint statement said, "recognized the need to address the challenges facing their two economies," which account for about 40 percent of the world economy. Profiles of Mori and his three immediate predecessors follow.

Yoshiro Mori

Born in 1937, Mori worked as a newspaper reporter in the early 1960s after graduating from college. He won election to parliament in 1969 at age 32 as a protege of former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda's and then became an ally of a former foreign minister, Shintaro Abe.

Mori served as minister of education and as minister of trade and construction in LDP governments beginning in 1983 and also as the party's No. 2 official, its secretary-general, putting him in charge of party administration.

He took office as prime minister in April, after Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi suffered a stroke.

Keizo Obuchi

Prime minister from July 1998 to April. A contemporary of Mori's, and his heart set on politics, he lifted weights as a young man to prepare for the fistfights that erupted between members of parliament.

Obuchi was elected to parliament in 1963, a year after graduating from college. He became foreign minister in 1997, one of his greatest talents being the ability to build coalitions within his party.

He was low-key even by the standards of modern Japan: "The secret of his success is to fly low," a political science professor at Tokyo University said of Obuchi when he became prime minister. "Nobody feels threatened by him."

Ryutaro Hashimoto

Prime minister from January 1996 to July 1998. Hashimoto was the son of a former Cabinet minister and entered parliament at age 26, in 1963. Under various prime ministers, he became minister of health, minister of transport and minister of finance. He was also the LDP's secretary-general.

Hashimoto was an accomplished photographer and mountaineer who twice attempted to climb Mount Everest. He was also an expert in kendo, the martial art of fencing with bamboo staves.

But as prime minister he failed at attempts to end the country's recession.

Tomichi Murayama

Prime minister from June 1994 to January 1996. The son of a fisherman, he took office at age 70 as the first Socialist prime minister since 1948 but led an unstable three-party coalition that included the LDP.

He broke with political tradition by declaring that Japan should pay compensation to thousands of women enslaved by Japanese troops during World War II. Murayama also successfully cleared obstacles to Japanese troops serving in United Nations peacekeeping operations.

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