TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata has landed the sputtering aircraft of his minority government before it could be shot down. The mechanics are hard at work. But will it fly again?
In announcing on Saturday his intention to resign, Mr. Hata forestalled almost-certain defeat by his government's opponents in parliament, who had submitted a no-confidence motion against his coalition last Thursday.
Losing that contest would have forced Hata either to resign or to call immediate general elections. By stepping down before the vote, Hata has opened the way to the formation a new government with greater parliamentary strength - possibly with him in the premier's post again. Until a new leader is chosen, or he is reappointed, Hata stays on as a caretaker.
Japan's politicians are now where they were a little over two months ago, when then-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa resigned amid accusations of financial misdeeds. Leaders of different parties are cajoling each other into alliances that become the talk of the moment, until word of a new agreement comes to light.
As of yesterday evening in Tokyo, it seemed that Hata and his cohorts might successfully coax Japan's Socialists - a big force in parliament who were once part of the Hosokawa/Hata coalition - into a rapprochement. ``Almost all of the Socialists are supporting rejoining the government,'' says Hajime Takano, editor of Insider, a political magazine here.
But the air of uncertainty produces ceaseless speculation. If it weren't for the World Cup and Wimbledon, it seems as though television here would be one unending political talk show.
Trouble has struck Japan when it can little afford it. Just as economists had dared to agree that Japan's three-year recession had bottomed out, the US dollar sagged last week, forcing up the value of the yen and imperiling the Japanese recovery.
Tense relations with the United States over access to Japan's market have recently entered a productive phase, with the US complementing Japanese sincerity. (Trade talks with US difficult, Page 6.) But without solid political backing for market deregulation, there is concern that the momentum for economic reform here will dissipate. Hata phoned President Clinton yesterday to assure him that the negotiations would stay on track.
Worst of all is that Japan is risking international embarrassment. The leaders of the world's top seven industrialized nations are gathering in Naples, Italy, on July 8-10 for their annual summit. It is now unclear who will represent Japan.
When Hata visited Europe earlier this summer, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl reportedly told him that the frequency of prime ministerial change in Japan was growing tiresome. Hata was said to have responded that he would ``do his best'' to stay in power longer than Mr. Hosokawa, who held the office for eight months. So far, Hata has not even come close.
Mr. Kohl may soon have to acquaint himself with yet another Japanese prime minister. But Kohl and others affected by Japan's political life are being forced to recognize that the ever-shifting cast of top leaders in Tokyo is the product of fundamental change in Japanese politics. The process began a year ago and may proceed for quite some time.
There are several facets to this change, including:
* The teetering of an old power structure. Until last summer, Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was in power, having ruled the country for 38 years. The Socialists constituted an almost-permanent opposition that was granted a large degree of influence. The system was comfortable for both sides, and both parties smoothed over serious internal policy differences in order to maintain stability.
But with the fall of the LDP last July and the inclusion of the Socialists in the coalition government formed under Hosokawa, the old system began to crumble. Dozens of politicians have already defected from the LDP, and there is constant talk of a Socialist split.
* The rise of a new generation. Hosokawa and Ichiro Ozawa, for instance, both former LDP members who have created new parties, are men in their 40s who are seen as a new breed of postwar leader.
Mr. Ozawa, in particular, wants Japan to redefine its role in the world, and to match its economic strength with a more- confidant geopolitical presence. These ideas are controversial in a country with the world's most-pacifist Constitution.
* The tenuous future of political reform. The legendary political corruption of the LDP led to its defeat and to calls for a new electoral system that would engender more active, responsive, and honest leaders.
Hosokawa and Ozawa argued for a system based on single-seat districts that would in theory lead to more frequent changes of parties in power. The LDP's 38-year tenure was seen as a main reason for its susceptibility to corruption. But after passing a political-reform law in December that created 300 new single-seat districts (and provided for 200 parliamentarians to be elected under the existing proportional representation system), parliament has yet to redraw the political map. Political reform is here in theory, but it is not yet a practical reality.
The timing of new elections has thus become controversial. If called immediately, they will be held under the old rules, essentially obviating progress toward political reform. Hata and his allies want to put off a vote until the new system is in place, one reason why he chose to resign this weekend. Many Socialists and LDP members, however, have less to fear from the old system.