The sudden passing of Japanese Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira deprives the United States of a staunch friend and Japan of a statesman whose weight was just beginning to make itself felt in international affairs.
It also adds confusion to an already turbulent domestic political picture. The country is in the midst of an election campaign for the two houses of the Diet (parliament), the results of which could see an end to a quarter century of exclusive rule by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Voting day is June 22. Under the Constitution, chief Cabinet secretary Masayoshi Ito has been named caretaker prime minister until another is elected by the new Diet. Mr. Ohira's place at the Venice economic summit June 22 and 23 will be taken by the foreign, finance, and international trade ministers.
"He was a fine statesman and a good leader for his own country and an inspiration for us all . . . . He and I shared a lot of hours in private together," said President Carter of a man he had come to consider a friend. Mr. Ohira's passing will have no immediate effect on Japan's international relations , including those with the US, Soviet Union, or China.
The decline of the Liberal Democrats has been paralleled by the growth of moderate opposition parties whose outlook on foreign policy and especially on the key security treaty with the US is not very different from that of the ruling party. Even if the Liberal Democrats lose their majority in the elections, they may be able to persuade some of these parties to join a coalition. An all-opposition coalition is possible, but not likely.
But the intangible asset represented by Mr. Ohira's wide international contacts and his personal relations with leaders as diverse as President Carter, Chinese Prime Minister Hua Guofeng, and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, will be sorely missed.
Mr. Ohira's prime ministership spanned a critical 18-month period. The Japanese became aware, as never before, not only how dependent they were on the world community but that they needed to contribute ideas, initiative, and commitment to that community.
Mr. Ohira, cautious and bull-like in appearance, was pulling his people in this unaccustomed direction perhaps a bit faster than domestic politics was willing to tolerate.
"An ally is a person who helps his friends when they are in trouble. That is what an ally is for," Mr. Ohira said when criticized by domestic opponents for following the American lead on economic sanctions against Iran.
Mr. Ohira was a deft political operator, skilled in the intrafactional maneuvering that characterizes Liberal Democratic politics. "A statesman should have a heart like Buddha and hands like the devil," he once said.
With the aid of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka (under indictment over the Lockheed bribery scandal), he unseated former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda. He was forced into the current campaign after unexpectedly losing a vote of confidence May 17.
Special correspondent Geoffrey Murray reports from Tokyo:
Prime Minister Ohira's sudden passing may help the faction-ridden ruling Liberal Democratic Party avoid a final split.
Although the party has been left leaderless only nine days before a crucial general election, some longtime analysts feel the LDP could benefit from a sympathy vote. And, given the ingrained conservatism of the electorate, many may feel this is not the time for experiments in democracy.
Ironically, his departure also may have removed a divisive element in the party. He looked increasingly like a lame-duck premier after being hospitalized at the start of the campaign. Younger elements of the party have been demanding a "generation change."
Now, however, some observers think the LDP may play up a crisis atmosphere and call for unity in the election campaign as well as in the LDP leadership struggle.