Overhaul in Japan

NOT since the end of World War II has Japan revamped its political system as much as it did on Saturday when parliament approved a package of reforms. The world may now see a new Japan.

The reforms, although watered down in a compromise with the opposition, have the potential to bring in a new type of legislator who can better reflect the interests of younger, urban Japanese. Up to now, politics in Japan has been largely beholden to farmers and big business.

If Japan has seemed skittish in global leadership or opening its markets to foreign goods, it is because its postwar politics was oriented toward one purpose: economic recovery to catch up with the West. But Japan had changed too much and grown too rich to keep the old ways. And the old system had bred high-level corruption by forcing candidates to lavish money on constituents under a multi-seat system in which even candidates of the same party ran against each other.

A string of political scandals since 1988 has laid bare the need for change. Two prime ministers fell for failing to pass reform. And the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which ruled Japan for 38 years, lost power last year after a reformist faction broke ranks.

The loss by the corrupt LDP was not complete enough. It remains the largest party and was able to force a compromise on the new, reformist prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, whose own coalition was divided on the impact of the reforms. Rather than resign or call an election, Mr. Hosokawa backed down on many of his reform ideas, especially a ban on corporate ``donations'' to individual politicians. The LDP might have won an election had one been called now, and might still under the new system.

Behind the efforts to reshape politics were three events that shook Japan: The end of the cold war, which reduced the need for a conservative LDP; a lingering recession that revealed flaws in the LDP's economic management; and the Gulf war, which found Tokyo wanting in its support of the West. These showed that Japanese politics was not up to new world demands.

Japanese voters must now rise to the challenge of voting more on issues that confront the nation than on whether a politician can have a road built or give money for a wedding. A new political responsiveness should develop now that voting districts will be redrawn more equitably and legislators will be elected for 300 single seats and for 200 seats based on the strength of each party's votes.

Once the economy picks up and the new system is in place, Mr. Hosokawa would be wise to call an election as a test of a new Japan. If he wins, he should again try to ban the money links between business and politicians.

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