Japan's Political Battle

WHILE President Clinton woos lawmakers in advance of next Wednesday's vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement, his counterpart in Japan is wrestling with an equally difficult task: pushing political reforms through Japan's parliament in time for his meeting with other Asian leaders and Mr. Clinton in Seattle next week.

We hope Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa succeeds. Because the reforms would reduce the political power of Japan's farm bloc, they offer the potential to improve long-term trade relations with the United States.

More profound, however, would be the reforms' potential to open up Japan's electoral process by reducing the cronyism - between big business, government ministries, and a single dominant political party - that has alienated and disenfranchised Japanese voters.

To an American ear, some of the reforms sound elementary: allowing door-to-door campaigning; changing the way parliamentary districts are represented; and granting public subsidies for campaigns. But in Japan's context, they set precedents.

One objective is to give voters more choices and to focus campaigns more on ideas and policies than on how much a candidate can steer government contracts and cash to supporters - actions that have led to a series of bribery scandals in Japan. These reforms could lead to politicians attuned more to the wishes of voters than to those of business cronies and government bureaucrats.

Another of Mr. Hosokawa's objectives is to reduce the clout of these bureaucrats, who traditionally have wielded more power than politicians in formulating government policy, particularly on economic and trade issues. One approach, already under way for economic reasons, is deregulation, which removes some of the bureaucrats' influence. Also, he has cut the number of top ministry officials allowed to reply on a Cabinet minister's behalf to questions from parliament. The message: ``You want to talk policy? Talk to my Cabinet appointee, not to a career bureaucrat.''

Hosokawa enjoys the support of some 70 percent of the Japanese electorate. The support seems to be holding, despite allegations that the coalition's top strategist, Ichiro Ozawa, has taken bribes. He denies the charge, but the cloud remains. Many of the coalition's leading politicians came from the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been wracked over the years by bribery scandals; this gives the charges some plausibility. But the charge also is suspect, given its timing and the entrenched opposition to reform. Even if the charges prove true, however, Japanese voters should not let the scandal take their eyes off the critical issue of reform. Hosokawa's proposals constitute a long-term political investment that Japan, noted for taking the long view, should not pass up.

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