`Politics as Usual' in Japan Must Not Derail Reform

AGAIN, low politics. Another high-minded reformist leader knelt down before jealously guarded corrupt politicians. Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa decided to step down after a month of boycott of Diet sessions by politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who had protested his receipt in 1982 of $950,000 from a mob-related trucking company. Very prematurely, his eight-month crusade against political corruption came to an end.

Mr. Hosokawa was the hope for a new Japan. After years of LDP political corruption and internal strife, the Japanese held high expectations for the dynamic young prime minister. But the new-breed Hosokawa was punished by die-hard old politics for having been part of it before. Shelving their own or their colleagues' colossal financial improprieties, LDP politicians brought down the genuine reformer by the same old tactics.

In a land where average junior politicians each spend at least $2 million a year to maintain their constituencies, Hosokawa's money scandal seems relatively minor. But he has been fighting against the essence of Japanese political culture: money politics. It became a legitimate tradition during the LDP's 38-year rule.

Some implication in dubious sources of campaign financing is the norm there. Almost everybody has a little skeleton in the closet. Hosokawa himself was an LDP politician until recently. But his impropriety in his personal finance pales compared with others, including his predecessors and his own kingmaker, Ichiro Ozawa.

Here lies Japan's paradox: to reach the apex of power, politicians cannot avoid money politics. If one is naive and stays clean, the chance to rise is slim. Integrity and qualifications do not count much. A clean politician tends to be a figurehead who is remote-controlled by money-immersed shadow shoguns.

Despite political instability, neither chaos nor an economic downturn will ensue. Yet this is not necessarily good news. His abrupt resignation confirmed the vulnerability and weakness of Japanese premiership. If every Japanese prime minister leaves office after only a year or two or less, nobody in that office can achieve anything significant. Japan's political ineptitude is likely to persist, while the administrative state run by self-perpetuating bureaucrats will continue to defy major change.

In the eyes of old-guard Japanese politicians, Hosokawa could have been a modern Japanese Don Quixote. He is a patrician warlord who cannot put up with low politics. He has already left a legacy. He broke up the so-called ``Iron Triangle,'' a collusive triumvirate among LDP political leaders, business leaders, and senior bureaucrats. He partially opened the rice market. He acknowledged Japan's wartime aggression and offered an apology to its neighbors. His cabinet approved an economic reform plan. Most important, he passed the political reform bill. Although the opposition diluted it, its impact will last.

Since Hosokawa has been the symbol of political reform and economic deregulation, his departure is a setback for Japan and the world. Political uncertainties would further delay Japan's urgent task of economic liberalization and cast a shadow on its quest for an international role commensurate with its economic power. Japanese political leaders should seriously question their ability to govern. Failure to reform Japan's political and economic systems will only strain relations with the United States and other countries. As leaders of a superpower, they no longer have the luxury of indulging in their perennial power struggle at the sacrifice of real issues that need their immediate attention.

If Hosokawa can't clean up Japanese politics, who can? Perhaps nobody, as long as low politics continues to dominate. First and foremost, Japanese leaders must rid themselves of money politics. Reform of the electoral system and campaign financing is essential. It should go beyond last year's political reform bill.

The Japanese people also should think seriously about their political system. Although politicians are responsible for the lack of leadership, it is the people who allow them to behave badly. The Japanese tend to accept the idea of politics being ``dirty.'' They either believe money politics to be a necessary evil, or they have become cynical, giving up hope on politics. Citizens must act as a watchdog for politicians. Otherwise, democratic institutions are doomed to decay. The public is a key to stopping the domination of low politics and preventing the return of ``politics as usual.''

In a scramble for power, Japanese politicians are again immersed in intense factional strife. Coalition members are wrangling over how to choose a new premier, while LDP leaders are struggling to prevent further disintegration. But the national government has been without a formal budget for more than two weeks. Major issues such as trade, tax, and deregulation have been left unattended. The word ``reform'' has been hardly heard.

Although old politics sabotaged Hosokawa's reform efforts, it cannot reverse the trends toward cleaner politics, higher accountability, and economic deregulation. His reform has already changed Japanese society so significantly that the country cannot go back to the past. The danger is that continued practices of Japan's old politics could diminish the momentum for reform. No matter who succeeds him, dirty politics must not be allowed to torpedo reform initiatives. As Barry Goldwater said of Bill Clinton's Whitewater problems, Japanese should speak up and admonish their leaders: ``Let him govern.'' The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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