IN his first act as prime minister of Japan, Morihiro Hosokawa asked his Cabinet to pose casually for an official photograph on a level, green lawn. Previous Cabinets had stood stone-faced on a rising, cold staircase.
Then he told his novice ministers to behave with a reformist spirit, asking them to disclose personal assets - including those of their spouses and children.
In both actions and words, Mr. Hosokawa, a sanguine descendent of a shogun-era nobleman, is following in the footsteps of several recent Asian leaders, from Corazon Aquino in the Philippines to Kim Young Sam in South Korea, whose mere ascendancy to power has brought a populist spirit of reform to politics.
Hosokawa brings the hope of an end to the long legacy of political corruption and one-party domination that was justified during the cold war by the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He vowed to build a politics "mindful of the people."
"Our most important task right now is that of restoring the people's trust in politics," he said Aug. 10, citing reform of the election and campaign system as his top priority.
His coalition, consisting of seven parties whose unity rests on opposition to the LDP and support for political reform, plans to introduce reform bills to parliament early next month and pass them by the end of the year.
"The destiny of the Hosokawa administration depends largely on the outcome of political reform," says Sadao Yamahana, the chairman of Japan's Socialist Party who holds a new Cabinet post in charge of political reform.
The coalition's urgency on reform comes from a continuing fear of the LDP, which remains the largest party with 228 of 511 seats in the lower house, and a concern that policy differences could break up the coalition.
The LDP, meanwhile, which ruled the country for 38 years, has already shown it is ready to obstruct the new government at every turn. The party plans to quibble over the reform bills long enough to force a new election soon, many analysts say, believing it can retake the majority that it lost in a July 18 vote.
"Let [the coalition] change what they can," said LDP President Yohei Kono, "and if they're not able to, then we're ready to take over again."
The coalition's reform plan would change the electoral system of multiseat districts, in which even candidates from the same party have to run against each other for the usual four to five seats.
This system has bred corruption as candidates tend to compete on how much money or public works they can provide voters, not on policy. Little debate takes place on issues during elections, creating the impression that Japan is not a democracy that can tackle global challenges.
But that system also allows weaker parties, such as the Socialists, to win one or two seats in a district by relying on a small but hard-core bloc of voters.
"Under the present system, politicians do not speak with responsibility," says Tsutomo Hata, who is deputy prime minister, foreign minister, and head of the Japan Renewal Party (JRP), a recent splinter from the LDP.
THE heart of the reform debate is over what should be the exact mix of multiseat and single-seat districts. The latter would mean a winner-take-all, with many losers.
Hosokawa proposes a 250-250 split of district types, but he has yet to convince everyone in the coalition. The weak link is the Socialist Party, whose left wing worries that the party will be overwhelmed by new conservative parties if the multiseat system is reduced.
To keep the Socialists from leaving the coalition and bringing down the government, the party was given six of 20 Cabinet posts, plus speaker of the house. Party chairman Yamahana was asked to head up the reform effort.
"The new lineup has taken into consideration a balance of each party and, by placing capable and influential persons with real power in key posts, has formed a stable Cabinet," says Japan Federation of Employers' Associations chairman Takeshi Nagano.
The three most important Cabinet posts after prime minister, went to Japan Renewal Party, leaders who were in the LDP inner circle just a year ago. The justice and education posts went to nonpoliticians, and women were given three lesser posts.
The coalition is not exempt from corruption charges either: JRP strategist Ichiro Ozawa is implicated in last year's Sagawa Kyubin scandal that helped bring down the LDP. But coalition leaders say that his defection from the LDP has "cleansed" him politically.
"We don't think the Sagawa issue has been settled. But the new government will no longer make an issue of Mr. Ozawa's alleged past relations with the Sagawa Kyubin trucking company," says government spokesman Masayoshi Takemura.