Bathed in television floodlights, with camera shutters clicking constantly, the three men who want to be Japan's next prime minister officially declared their ambitions yesterday. After nearly five years in office, the third longest tenure in postwar Japan, Yasuhiro Nakasone will step down at end of this month. His departure is viewed with dismay by many abroad, particularly in the United States, who found in him a new type of Japanese leader - one ready to assert his own, and Japan's, role in world affairs.
At home Mr. Nakasone remains a leader of unprecedented popularity, at least in the opinion polls. But among his colleagues in the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) there is relief, even glee, over the end of his administration.
The three men who have been waiting increasingly impatiently for their chance to succeed him all pay fealty to Nakasone's legacy, but none have the intention to emulate his style of leadership. Despite the label ``new leaders,'' all are veteran politicians in their 60s who fit the classical Japanese mode of reaching decisions through a cautious process of building consensus.
The three are former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, and party Secretary General Noboru Takeshita.
On policy matters, the three freely acknowledge that there is little substantial difference between them. All stress that they will continue the policies of Nakasone. In international affairs, they call for strengthening the US alliance, for resolving the trade imbalance, and for using Japan's huge capital surplus to lessen the gap between developed and developing countries. They support a continuation of the gradual but restrained buildup of Japan's military forces.
On the domestic front, their platforms emphasize completion of an agenda of reforms headed by tax reform, education reform, and a curb on the spiraling land prices in major cities.
The three differ only on the priority each places on these issues. The crucial divergence, says Mr. Takeshita, ``will boil down to the difference of style between us three and how this will be perceived.''
Takeshita describes himself as a man who learned the ``importance of silence and patience as the necessary ingredient for a politician.'' He inherits the LDP faction of former Premier Kakuei Tanaka, a man reknowned for his mastery of Chicago-style machine politics.
In that tradition, the diminutive, soft-spoken Takeshita has a reputation as a man skilled in the internal politics of the LDP, knowing how to create consensus and to administer policies. Of the three, he is considered the most domestically oriented, despite his experience of several terms as finance minister.
Takeshita most directly expresses the distaste many LDP members have for the sometimes imperious manner of Nakasone. It is commonly said inside the party that Nakasone would quickly make promises abroad, such as on trade issues, for which he had not prepared a consensus at home.
Takeshita says that with him as Prime Minister, ``You will not see an agressive, presidential style of leadership.''
He offers ``reliable diplomacy'', arguing that his abilities in domestic politics means he will be able to keep his promises. ``I will go step by step in terms of domestic efforts to gain the understanding of the population ... and then go stride by stride in terms of implementation.''
Mr. Miyazawa, in contrast, is an urbane, sophisticated man of ideas and international experience, but notorious for his dislike of the wheeling and dealing of backroom politics. He speaks English with style and fluency. Not surprisingly, he offers himself as the man most able to carry on Nakasone's forte for diplomacy.
``What Nakasone has launched will be carried on,'' he told foreign reporters. ``We will keep on the road to opening up Japan and internationalization.''
But Miyazawa also says his vision of leadership is consensual, like the ``helmsman of a large tanker'' who expresses the views of the entire crew.
Mr. Abe is, in the words of one analyst, ``everybody's second choice.'' He draws praise for his kind manner and has accumulated much experience as Nakasone's foreign minister for the last four years. But he is sometimes viewed as a political lightweight, one who inherited power from his powerful father-in-law, the late premier Nobusuke Kishi.
Technically the election is for the post of party president. Since the conservatives have held an almost uninterrupted parlimentary majority since end of World War II, party leadership has automatically meant the premiership.
Under the party's rules, the president is elected by the 445 LDP members of the Diet, Japan's parliament. The election is made more complex because the party is divided into tightly knit factions, headed by senior politicians. The factions are the source of patronage, funds, and power.
There has been unusual amount of open campaigning, of speeches, of presentation of platforms, and meetings with the press including the foreign press. This is a gesture to Nakasone's more populist politics.
In practice, however, elections within the LDP are decided by coalitions of factions. Winning a majority of the Diet members is an often Byzantine process of forming factional alliances, of deals to distribute future Cabinet and party positions, of promises to give support in exchange for future backing.
By this reckoning, Takeshita is considered the frontrunner. He heads the largest faction, with 114 members, compared to Miyazawa's 89 and Abe's 86. He also has the support of the 31-member faction of Toshio Komoto.
Abe and Takeshita are close friends and they have formed an alliance though they have not been able to agree who would ``go first'' as premier. The key may be held by Nakasone's 87-member faction which he would like to use to play the role as kingmaker. There is strong suspicions that Nakasone harbors a desire to use that power to return to office sometime in future.
The party election is scheduled for Oct. 20. However it is more likely that the matter will be decided by a deal beforehand, making the vote a formality. Already intermediaries are traveling back and forth testing the waters for the crucial agreements.