Japan Enters Political Limbo As Old Guard Is Disgraced

New ruling coalition must be forged, with parties wooing urban voters

JAPAN marked the end of an era yesterday.

Two men, Shin Kanemaru and Kiichi Miyazawa, who led the nation's former ruling party for decades, officially fell from grace.

Just where the Japanese will go from here without such old-guard politicians is anyone's guess. They helped transform war-torn Japan into an export giant, but of late failed to keep pace with social and economic trends.

Mr. Miyazawa was forced to resign as president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after it lost its majority rule in last Sunday's lower house election, ending the party's 38 years of near-absolute dominance. Mr. Miyazawa's move means he will soon step down as prime minister.

Mr. Kanemaru, former LDP kingpin who could once pick and fire prime ministers, went on trial Thursday for evading $9.6 million in taxes on dubious donations from construction firms. He pleaded not guilty.

But while some LDP old guards have been sidelined, the LDP is not. It survived the election as Japan's largest political party by far, holding 223 of 511 seats in the lower house, 33 shy of a majority. "Many LDP politicians will stick together," says Tokyo University's Takashi Inoguchi, "and somehow muddle through this difficult period."

But the party is severely divided between younger and older members over the choice of a new leader and anti-corruption reforms. A new prime minister must be chosen by Aug. 16.

Voter distrust of all politicians and their dislike of official corruption remains high, as seen in the record-low turnout for the election. "I don't think there are any Japanese politicians who are not criminals, especially in the LDP," says prominent commentator Minoru Morita.

The winners in the election were three new conservative parties - the Japan Renewal Party, Pioneer Party, and Japan New Party - which now hold the swing votes for a new government. Their choice of coalition partners is expected in a few days.

Most leaders of these new parties are ex-LDP politicians who now champion reform on behalf of the urban young. These Japanese are disenchanted with "Japan Inc.," where living standards mean less than national economic growth. They live with long commutes, long work hours, and cramped housing.

About 70 percent of Japanese say the government does not represent the views of the people, according to an official poll.

"The system is not up to responding to broader public opinion," says Princeton University professor Kent Calder. The LDP, adds Columbia University professor Gerald Curtis, "just doesn't get it that values have changed."

The LDP's majority eroded as more and more of its corruption was exposed in recent years. The booming "bubble" economy of the late 1980s raised the level of greed to new heights; when the bubble burst in 1991, many bribery cases were exposed.

The LDP's support remains with Japan's rural residents, who have voting power far beyond their number because of a lack of electoral reform during a period of rapid urbanization.

"We really had two elections. One in the large cities and another in the countryside," Calder says. City voters want change while rural voters, many of them protected farmers, want stability.

The most noticeable change has been in big business, which no longer ties its fate solely to the LDP nor funds the party's campaign coffers generously, as it has since the LDP was formed in 1955. With all the changes in the world economy, Japanese business has "declining incentives to support one-party dominance," Calder says.

Japan's politicians and powerful bureaucrats have not caught up with the globalization of the Japanese economy, says Dr. Inoguchi of Tokyo University. Big business has been looking for a chance to change Japan's out-of-date leadership structure and make the economy more efficient.

"We hope for a system of [two] conservative parties which will have the LDP at the center," says Takeshi Nagano, president of the Japan Federation of Employers' Associations.

While change is in the air these days, the focus for now is on a power play for leadership.

"Every opportunity flows from a transfer of power," Tsutomu Hata, leader of the Japan Renewal Party, told the Nihon Keizai newspaper. He wants non-LDP parties to lay aside policy differences for a while just to oust the LDP and alter the electoral system.

Most analysts hope political change will hold leaders more accountable and bring more open public debate on issues.

"Japan is like a dinosaur with a small brain," writes Ichiro Ozawa, a leader of the Japan Renewal Party, in a new book. "Strong leadership became unnecessary, when it was more efficient for everyone to consult with each other in an ambiguous decisionmaking process."

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