JAPAN'S new prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, has shaped himself as a politician for the '90s - the Bill Clinton of Japan. He presents himself as an outsider not part of the corruption that led to the ouster of the Liberal Democratic Party. Unlike Tokyo's typical dour and stiff politicians, Mr. Hosokawa wears sweaters and smiles in party posters. He uses the word change more than President Clinton and has vowed to reform the insular "iron triangle" of politicians, industry, and bureaucrats that has run Japan for 40 years.
Yet beneath the smiles and the Western political styles and images, Hosokawa faces some serious challenges. The ouster of LDP and the serious damage done the leading opposition Socialists suggest a crisis of leadership in Japan as much as an opportunity to change. Reformers want to open up the system, decentralize authority, and eliminate the rigged system of profits, for example, in the Tokyo stock market. But the corruption in LDP was deep and widespread, and the system of kickbacks, deals, and too-coz y relationships will not be easily reformed. Government ministries and the bureaucracy run day-to-day affairs. The disparate coalition Hosokawa leads may be too weak to complete a reform; there is no agreed-upon majority. The main platform has been opposition to corruption and the LDP.
In short, Hosokawa and the coalition may be transitional, and Japan may face another political shuffle.
The impulse for change comes at a time when Japan is uncertain about its role and responsibility in the post-cold-war world. Western nations are clamoring for Japan to open its closed markets. Tokyo's leaders must decide whether they should aim to be permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and take more active part in sending troops overseas. Regional security relations are changing with the possible lessening of American military influence in the region, and the rise of South Korea and China as competitors.
Yet both Hosokawa and Masayoshi Takemura, who will take the influential post of Cabinet secretary, cut their teeth not on national or international affairs - but on regional politics. Perhaps this can be made a plus. Hosokawa is not quite the outsider he presents himself as. His family roots are in the feudal aristocracy.
If Hosokawa can simply begin the task of reform, he will be doing much. Opening the system to a public discussion - for the first time in Japan's history - will itself start a reordering.