These days, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone is a lonely man. When campaigns for local elections kicked off this week, none of his party's candidates wished to be seen sharing a podium with him. This is a turnaround for a man who only seven months ago led the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to win the largest parliamentary majority in postwar history.
Mr. Nakasone's five-year reign as prime minister recently became the third-longest since the war. During that time he has consistently shown great popularity in the opinion polls. Now there is widespread talk of his having to step down by summer, before his term ends in October. The possibility of his staying on longer seems dim.
Nakasone's troubles are causing concern among both foreign and Japanese policymakers. Without his strong leadership, they worry that Japan may balk at the changes necessary to avert global trade war and to assure policy coordination among the West's advanced industrial nations.
What accounts for the prime minister's troubles, and how serious are they?
All agree the immediate issue propelling Nakasone's popularity ratings downward is the controversial tax reform, presented by the government to parliament last month.
Fueling that domestic fire is trade friction with the United States. The US's adoption of retaliatory tariffs against Japan for alleged violation of a computer chip pact has created the most serious bilateral trade crisis yet. (See story this page.)
Nakasone's controversial tax plan combines tax cuts for individuals and corporations with a 5 percent sales tax similar to Europe's value-added tax.
The sales tax has unified the opposition, drawing together the opposition parties, led by the Socialists, along with the LDP's traditional supporters, such as small businessmen and farmers. That unlikely combination, galvanized by an anti-tax hike campaign, this month yielded the stunning upset victory of a Socialist candidate in a parliamentary by-election.
LDP politicians have since been quick to blame defeat on the tax plan and indirectly on Nakasone, who has made the plan part of his personal political agenda.
LDP candidates in next month's local elections have lost no time declaring their opposition to the tax plan.
Even in Tokyo, where the party leadership is united behind the plan, Nakasone faces tough criticism within the LDP. Critics view him as an imperious leader, unwilling to engage in the traditional consensual methods of Japanese politics.
``Nakasone is not Japanese,'' says an LDP member of parliament who is a senior leader of his faction. The upset vote ``was an anti-Nakasone vote,'' he believes, proving that the premier's charismatic style has finally failed him.
``It is not a Nakasone problem,'' counters Yoichi Masuzoe, a Tokyo University political scientist. ``It is really just a question of the sales tax.''
But even those who share Mr. Masuzoe's more charitable interpretation admit that Nakasone made a great mistake in his handling of the sales tax issue by not adequately preparing public opinion.
However it is viewed, the issue has undermined Nakasone's great strength as a popular figure. Like Ronald Reagan, he has shown great skill in using the mass media to make direct appeals to the populace, often to force his party to follow him. He has used his standing with the populace to overcome his weakness within the LDP. While his position depends on the votes of LDP members of parliament, his popularity has also demonstrably aided their electoral triumphs.
Nakasone's other great weapon in the battle for power within the LDP is his image as a statesman, with his more individualistic style. He does not hesitate to advertise his close links with Reagan, the ``Ron-Yasu relationship,'' as an indispensable barrier to a much-feared deterioration in the alliance on which Japan's military and economic security depends.
Just as the sales-tax problem is diminishing his popularity at home, trade friction - in recent weeks over semiconductors and the Japanese purchase of US supercomputers - also undermines his political leadership. Part of the problem, says Tokyo University Prof. Seizaburo Sato, is the result of Reagan's ``declining capability'' of managing US politics.
At the same time, Nakasone is finding it tougher to deliver the goods from his side. Japan's economic growth is slowing - in 1986 it grew by 2.5 percent, the lowest level in 12 years. The yen's high value, a product of cooperation among Western nations to try to redress the trade imbalance, is seen as responsible for rising unemployment and recessionary trends. A recent poll released by Nakasone's office showed a growing number of Japanese blaming the US for trade friction.
Nakasone plans to come to the US in late April or early May and pull off another diplomatic triumph that would in turn strengthen him at home.
Mr. Sato, a Nakasone adviser, says the premier would like to deliver an address to the US Congress, unprecedented for a Japanese leader. The problem is, for such an event not to pose the danger of an embarrassingly cold response, Nakasone will have to take to the US evidence of Japan's willingness to change its economic policy, even at some sacrifice.
A triumph in the US will depend on regaining the political momentum at home. That will largely turn on the outcome of local elections in April. If the LDP fares well, particularly in a few key governorship races, the sales tax could be pushed through parliament by summer.
Nakasone's ace is that none of his potential successors, all of whom publicly support the plan, want to inherit the problem. Similarly, a deterioration in US-Japan relations may work in his favor.
``Nakasone might not be able to solve the problems,'' Sato says, ``but others can be worse. We cannot afford to change the prime minister now.''