A New Political Structure Slowly Evolves in Japan

THE jockeying for power in the aftermath of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa's resignation actually lives up to the journalistic cliches about turmoil, chaos, and upheaval.

It has not been easy to follow the parties and factions that are now trying to put together coalitions, realignments, and even new parties. Getting through the front page of the newspaper is like reading the sports section during baseball's playoff season, only it's not as much fun. Talk-show pundits are forced to use plastic dolls of the various political players to make it easier for viewers to track the speculation.

Recently one political reporter ended his report on television with a resounding ``nothing can be foretold.''

The really sagacious observers, however, take all this confusion in stride. They say chaos is the point and use sweeping metaphors to make it. ``This is a major transformation of party constellations,'' says Seizaburo Sato of the Institute for International Policy Studies, a Tokyo think tank. Takashi Inoguchi, a political scientist at Tokyo University, relies on a more elemental image: ``A new system is trying to be born.''

Mr. Hosokawa came to power last August after national elections denied a parliamentary majority to the Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled this country for almost four decades. His arrival was greeted with a sense of expectation that he would dismantle what are seen as the excesses of the LDP era: a political system rife with corruption, an economy heavily geared toward the success of key industries, and a corps of bureaucrats who are too powerful for the people's good.

But the moment some thought had arrived with Hosokawa's premiership - the dawning of a post-LDP political structure - simply isn't here yet.

Ironically, questions about Hosokawa's own finances in the early 1980s helped bring him down, but some analysts point out that Hosokawa is just one of many politicians here whose pasts are tainted by the system that nurtured them. In any case, the scandal seems much more the occasion for his departure, rather than its cause.

The coalition that Hosokawa led - comprising seven parties in the powerful lower house of parliament, and another party in the upper house - was united mainly, perhaps exclusively, in its opposition to the LDP. Its most notable success, the passage of a political reform law designed to make politicians more accountable and less prone to corruption, is essentially an anti-LDP law.

The coalition foundered badly on other issues, such as a new tax that Hosokawa proposed to fund social programs for Japan's aging population. He had to withdraw the measure after coalition members publicly opposed it. Hosokawa wanted to reshuffle the Cabinet earlier this year, but the coalition vetoed that plan too.

As the coalition tries to find a replacement for Hosokawa, its divisions are growing more and more apparent. The parties have not been able to agree on a method for choosing a new premier, much less name one. Mostly, the talk here is of certain parties from the coalition teaming up with like-minded politicians from the LDP, which also embraces a diverse group of factions.

Several factions spun off the LDP during last year's political changes, and it is conceivable that the venerable party of Japan's postwar period could splinter further. One of the party's stalwarts, Michio Watanabe, a former deputy prime minister and foreign minister, is seen as a possible defector who could ally his faction with a group from the coalition. Mr. Watanabe, though ailing, says he has the strength, the will, and the desire to become prime minister.

The LDP's president, Yohei Kono, announced April 12 that he too would seek the prime minister's job, a move that was seen as an attempt to counter a departure by Watanabe.

It is the prospect of LDP and coalition disintegration that causes some observers to talk of breakdown and renewal. Some analysts see a parallel to the period between 1952 and 1955, immediately following the American postwar occupation of Japan. Those years of political upheaval led to a political merger that created the LDP, which was able to take control of the government and keep it by articulating two goals: Keeping leftists out of power in Japan and making a concerted national effort to rebuild an economy crushed by war.

Professor Inoguchi, for one, says the analogy to the present turmoil stops here, because the current scene offers no similar driving forces.

He cites two factors behind the chaos. ``One is the way the Japanese political and economic system was managed in the last five decades: close coordination between business and government, with government being equipped with regulatory and administrative mechanisms to coordinate policy with economic and business activity. [This strategy] has become more difficult to sustain, given the steady globalization of the economy.''

The second is that ordinary Japanese are less willing to put up with economic policies geared toward production and exports. ``The surge of voices [for a government] more oriented to consumers and amenities and a more relaxed way of life is on the rise.''

But he says these notions are ``fuzzy'' by comparison to the anti-communist, pro-business goals of the postwar era. ``Now popular aspirations are not sufficiently articulated, and the policy tenets of the political parties are very poorly presented.''

There is not much in the way of ideological differences to build parties or coalitions on, so ``power and personalities loom large'' in the current realignment. Professor Sato agrees that politicians will divide and regroup together more for reasons of political expediency than because they share policy convictions.

But this process ``could get quite messy,'' Inoguchi says. The legislature has passed a political reform law, but has not yet redrawn voting districts. So unless the coalition can field a new prime minister, it will have to call elections under the old system - which it was elected to change.

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