Sorting Out Japan: Patience Is Required

DELICIOUS uncertainty, tinged with apprehension. That seems to be the prevailing mood among Japanese voters as politicians bargain behind closed doors in the wake of last Sunday's general election.

Delicious - because the one unmistakable result of the election is that the Liberal Democrats, Japan's ruling party for the last 38 years, have lost their majority. Politics doesn't have to be boring any more. In fact, it could become downright exciting.

Apprehension - because the Japanese generally don't like unpredictability. In this consensus-minded society, "to avoid conclusion" is the most common excuse offered by bureaucrats or trade associations when they trample down some original idea.

Until the Japanese sort our their politics, the United States and other countries are bystanders. Washington may imagine, wishfully, that whatever government emerges, it will be more consumer-responsive and open to imports. That could happen. So could movement toward a relationship between government and business less subject to stifling rules and regulations.

These things will come about, if they do, because of the perception by more and more Japanese that their own economic growth and prosperity depend on greater interpretation and interaction with the outside world. Gaiatsu - foreign pressure - helps. But only to the extent it is exerted in the same direction that a majority of Japanese want to go. Gaiatsu won't work if it is applied in any other way.

This argues for a more subtle approach to opening Japan's markets than the Clinton administration has tried. It should continue to insist that Japan's market be at least as welcoming of American goods and services as the American market is to all countries, including Japan. But it shouldn't claim to be speaking on behalf of the Japanese consumer. Let Japanese consumer groups speak for themselves.

Politically, the Japanese are trying to evolve toward a two-party system like the American or the British. They are not used to the European pattern of shifting coalitions between several parties. They associate this pattern with the instability after World War II and don't want a repetition of it.

Some of the conditions to start the transition from one-party government to alternation in office between two major parties have come into being as a result of the July 18 election. The alternative to continued rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is no longer a Socialist opposition eschewing the security treaty with the US, but a group of liberal-to-conservative parties espousing electoral reform. If and as they come together, the differences between them and the LDP probably will not be greater t han those between the Republicans and the Democrats in the US. Already, two new parties, the Sakigake, or Harbingers, and the Japan New Party, have agreed to unify. Together, they will have over 50 seats in the 511-seat House of Representatives.

A third party, the Renaissance Party, has 55 seats. It came into being in June when its co-leaders, Tsutomu Hata and Ichiro Ozawa walked out of the LDP with 35 others. Hata and Ozawa have a clear vision of the reforms they want to carry out. First and foremost is the establishment of a single-seat constituency system combined with some form of proportional representation.

But the Renaissance Party and other non-LDP groups can't form a majority without the Socialists, who still retain 70 seats and are the largest single opposition party. The party's leadership has abandoned Marxism and pledges to participate in a coalition government. But the rank and file include diehard Marxists who won't hear of working with ex-Liberal Democrats. Tough talks must take place; the prospect of finally ending the LDP's long monopoly is a powerful incentive for compromise.

As for the LDP, with 223 seats, it is by far the largest party in the new parliament, and if it could find a partner, it could form the next government. That won't be easy. Unless the LDP chooses a reform-minded leader like former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu as its new standard-bearer, no other party will accept its invitation. But the LDP has its own diehards that could split the party again rather than change the present outdated system.

So it is going to take time - probably more than one election - for a true two-party system to evolve. For Washington and other anxious bystanders, patience is required.

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