TOSHIKI KAIFU, Japan's first prime minister to have grown up during the American occupation, came to maturity during the years that Japanese democracy was reborn. His tenure may be short. But it almost certainly marks a transition to a political generation that takes the postwar democratic structure as a given from one that frequently looked backward to pre-World War II days. A short, outgoing, athletic man with a fondness for polka-dot ties, Mr. Kaifu has made ``dialogue and reform'' the slogan of his administration. His political future depends entirely on whether he will be able to retain even a threadbare majority for the Liberal-Democrat in the general election that must be held by July 1990.
His formidable opponent in that election will be Ms. Takako Doi, leader of the Socialist Party and the most popular politician in Japan today. The Liberal Democrats went down in an unprecedented landslide defeat to the Socialists and other opposition parties in upper house elections last month. The lower house is more powerful than the upper house, and election results there will determine whether the Liberal Democrats will have to yield office after more than forty years in the saddle.
The chief issue will be the 3 percent consumption tax the government has imposed on almost all goods and services since April 1. Kaifu has promised to redraft the consumption tax law, while the opposition wants it abolished. Kaifu's strategy will be to force opposition parties to come up with a viable alternate source of government revenue. If, in the process, he manages to split opposition ranks, he will have a fighting chance to hold off the election at least until next year. If not, with parliament divided between an upper house controlled by the opposition and a lower house controlled by the Liberal Democrats, the election might have to be called this fall.
Kaifu was elected prime minister with the support of the Liberal Democrats three most powerful factions, but he is not necessarily in their pocket. If his maneuvering over the consumption tax is skillful enough, and especially if he staves off defeat in the election, his position will be secure at least for the normal two-year term as party president and hence as prime minister.
Kaifu is a practiced orator who projects an aura of unaffected sincerity. This quality makes him appealing to women voters - an important asset for anyone hoping to take on Ms. Doi. He comes from the LDP's smallest faction - one founded by the late Premier Takeo Miki and that prides itself on being policy-oriented, not money-bound. Still, Kaifu admitted receiving $100,000 in political contributions from the scandal-plagued Recruit company over a five-year period. Kaifu says these were legitimate contributions, duly reported to the tax authorities - and so far, at least, there has not been the kind of outcry over his admissions that greeted other politicians acknowledging more serious unreported gifts from Recruit.
Kaifu has had next to no experience in foreign affairs, so his position on the relationship with the United States has not gone beyond generalities. But for George Bush, a bomber pilot shot down over the Bonins in World War II, Kaifu does represent the postwar democratic values that were a direct consequence of the war Mr. Bush's generation fought.
Like Emperor Akihito, Kaifu came to maturity in a Japan whose political, economic, and social institutions were profoundly changed by defeat and by the six years of US occupation that succeeded it. The emperor became a symbol of state. War was renounced. Women got the vote. Landlords lost their paddy fields in a thorough-going land reform that made farmers the most solid supporters of the Liberal Democrats for many years.
Kaifu decided early on to make his career in politics in this kind of democratically transformed Japan. He was elected to parliament at the age of 29. He served two terms as education minister and also as deputy cabinet secretary.
He has had little experience in economics, but is reputed to be a quick study. There is not much he can do immediately about Japan's trade surplus with the US, a surplus that has caused increasing irritation in Washington, compounded by the self-justifying attitude many Japanese businessmen and officials have taken. What seems to be lacking on both sides of the Pacific is a perception that when all is said and done, the partnership between the US and Japan is based on a solid bedrock of shared democratic values. This may well be Kaifu's most important task when he sees President Bush in Washington Sept. 1.