Japan's `Caretaker' Prime Minister Finds Unexpected Backing


HIS skill at steering Japan through the shoals of trade disputes with Washington has earned praise for Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu. But it has also created waves in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that might endanger Mr. Kaifu's political future as well as new American access to the Japanese market.

The praise has generated jealousy among his potential LDP successors and his trade concessions are threatening the party's traditional backing from business interests. For help, Kaifu has sought unusual support from public opinion and from President Bush, say Tokyo analysts.

``As long as Bush and Kaifu appear to be cooperating, there will be no Kaifu bashing inside the LDP,'' says political commentator Minoru Morita.

The Bush administration, which sees Kaifu as a useful reformer within the LDP's conservative leadership, has gone out of its way to embrace the Japanese leader, despite his weak standing among party leaders. Last Thursday, Mr. Bush praised Kaifu as exemplifying ``the best in cooperation and leadership.'' Kaifu was selected last August by party elders who needed a ``clean'' but temporary leader after money and sex scandals forced two prime ministers to resign.

As his titular role has solidified into a more commanding leadership, Kaifu finds himself with open detractors. LDP Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa, for instance, claims that government leaders other than Kaifu negotiated the interim report in the Structural Impediments Initiative (SII) with the US.

Shintaro Abe, Kaifu's most serious party rival, is reportedly upset that he was not sent to Washington to solve an impasse in the talks, and thus gain the political limelight. A earlier summit in March between Bush and Kaifu in California helped to boost the prime minister's prestige in Japan. The summit was followed by a trip to Washington of former prime minister Noboru Takeshita, leader of the LDP largest faction. Analysts now wonder if Mr. Abe still has the backing of Mr. Takeshita in succeeding Kaifu.

Trade promises made in the SII interim report on altering Japan's economic policies will test Kaifu's abilities to conduct the necessary legislative and bureaucratic battles.

Small shopkeepers, for instance, faced with liberalization of a law that restricts large stores, might withdraw support for the LDP in 1991 local elections.

And Kaifu risks possible loss of support from Bush if the reform efforts falter. By the end of April, Bush must decide whether to cite Japan as an ``unfair'' trading partner, as he did last year. And the US also wants Kaifu to make more concessions before the final SII report in July. Loss of US support might jeopardize Kaifu's standing within the LDP. Japanese leaders see a close Bush-Kaifu alliance as necessary to prevent protectionist moves by the US Congress.

By claiming that policy changes are for the good of Japanese consumers, Kaifu has boosted his popularity to a level where his critics have largely remained silent. A recent poll revealed the popularity of the Kaifu Cabinet at 45 percent, up from 33 percent in January. He is also being helped by 12.7 percent drop in Japan's trade surplus in March compared to a year earlier, as well as continuing reports about last year's Recruit Company's shares-for-favors scandal that has keep alive his ``clean'' image.

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