TOKYO — FROM the beginning of his tenure as Japan's prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa has been compared to another governor from a small state who came to the capital promising change: Bill Clinton. Unfortunately for Mr. Hosokawa, the parallels have not ceased - he has found himself tainted by allegations of financial improprieties from his gubernatorial days.
Worse yet, more and more political observers here are talking of Hosokawa's resignation. Two members of parliament said after dining privately with the premier this week that Hosokawa himself voiced a desire to step down, possibly in jest, causing an uproar that prompted him to call a midnight press conference early Wednesday morning to deny the remark.
Hosokawa has been fending off allegations that he accepted an improper donation of 100 million yen ($970,000) from a trucking company previously accused of bribery and links to organized crime. He has admitted receiving the money, but says it was a loan. His opponents say it was a bribe.
The sense of irony here is palpable. The coalition that Hosokawa heads came to power last August promising an end to the so-called money politics of the Liberal Democratic Party, which the coalition displaced. Now LDP members - whose 38-year grip on power was broken after a slew of bribery and influence-peddling scandals - fax each other copies of a receipt Hosokawa has released in an attempt to show that he paid back the money, because they believe it to be an obvious and sloppy fake.
``If you show this receipt to the tax authorities,'' says Motoo Shiina, an independent member of Japan's upper house who left the LDP six years ago, ``they will laugh.''
And while the LDP's enthusiasm in investigating Hosokawa suggests the party is more than a little satisfied that the prime minister's own record is not quite so pristine, analysts seem to agree that the fall of Hosokawa would crystallize the disgust that many Japanese already feel for their political leaders.
TAKAYOSHI MIYAGAWA, a political consultant, says Hosokawa's resignation would put this country's political system into a tether-less spacewalk. Japan, he says, ``would suffer a similar confusion to that of Italy.''
At the moment, Hosokawa's approval ratings are still high, says Minoru Morita, a political analyst here. But he says public opinion is growing that Hosokawa cannot deliver on his promises of reform. More than the allegation of bribery, he says, disappointed expectations will lead to his downfall.
Analysts of Japan's postwar political system have long identified three pillars of power: the politicians of the LDP, the leaders of big industry, and the country's top bureaucrats and administrators. This troika is credited with engendering Japan's export-driven economic boom, but has been blamed in recent years for creating a system of excessive regulation, closed markets, and corrupt politics.
Now that anger over scandals has curbed the power of the LDP and the standing of the business leaders, Mr. Morita argues, ``Only one strong power remains - the bureaucrats.''
But ``one of the reasons Hosokawa has failed is that he has not shown any clear idea of how to change the current situation in which the bureaucrats are too powerful,'' he says.
Morita offers as an example the February breakdown in negotiations between the United States and Japan over the opening of this country's markets.
At a meeting with President Clinton in February, the Japanese leader refused to agree to measure the level of market-opening in hard numbers, as the US had demanded. Bureaucrats here have long opposed ``numerical targets'' - which US negotiators say is the best way to ensure Japan stops unfairly protecting its huge markets - and Morita says Hosokawa did not have the strength to oppose them.
Noting Hosokawa's resilient approval ratings, he says that it may be possible for the prime minister to withstand this crisis. As is the case with his American counterpart, Hosokawa's alleged transgressions date back to the early and mid-1980s and, even if substantiated, may fall within the public's ``limit of permissibleness.''
``The people are very generous to him,'' says Mr. Shiina, because so many of them were taken with his image as a clean reformer. ``They still want to believe that.''