INCOMING Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata is a pleasant and likable person who looks you straight in the face as he talks, gestures, and smiles. Ask almost anyone about him, and the reply will be, ``Oh, he's a nice guy!''
Fast on the heels of this reply comes another, ``But he's just a puppet for Ichiro Ozawa.'' Mr. Ozawa is the Secretary General of the Japan Renewal Party, of which Mr. Hata is president.
Puppet is probably too strong a term, and it is unjustified. Hata and Ozawa are the classic good guy/bad guy team. Hata is the public face and Ozawa is the back-room figure and dealmaker. But the two have been friends since they were first elected to parliament 25 years ago, and they share political ideals. They both want a strong, assertive Japan in the global community. They want a solid, continuing relationship with the United States.
In domestic policy, they have both called for electoral reform, a combination of proportional representation with single-seat electoral districts to replace and present multiseat districts. The law has been passed, but the politically vexing problem of redistricting remains to be carried out.
They both want lower income taxes and higher indirect taxes in order to finance an increasingly costly social security program for an aging population. They are for deregulation and for more effective control by politicians over the powerful bureaucracy.
The curious aspect of Japanese politics today is that to put through this program, Hata and Ozawa have to fight their battles within the ruling coalition rather than with the Liberal Democrats, whose 38-year monopoly of political power they broke with the creation of the Hosokawa government last August.
The coalition started with nothing more in common than a desire to oust the Liberal Democrats and to remain in power at least until the single-seat electoral system comes into being. The largest party in the coalition is the Socialist, with 76 seats in parliament. The next is Hata's and Ozawa's Japan Renewal Party, with 70 seats.
Whereas Hata, Ozawa, and a number of other top coalition leaders were Liberal Democrats for many years, the Socialists have been perennially in opposition - their only experience of government being from 1947 to 1948.
Since joining the government this time, they are beginning to learn that one cannot simply oppose, one must also propose and execute policy. But old habits do not die easily.
The Socialists no longer oppose the security treaty with the US, or Japan's own self-defense forces, but they still stand for a very narrow interpretation of the Constitution, which renounces the right to go to war but does not abandon the right of self-defense. Under their interpretation, Japan can participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations only to a very limited extent.
In domestic policy, the Socialists follow the popular line of cutting income taxes, but bitterly oppose making up for revenue shortfalls by raising the consumption tax. They oppose the use of nuclear power to generate electricity in resource-poor Japan. They want to protect Japan's farmers by keeping out foreign rice.
Hata and Ozawa want Japan to become what Ozawa calls an ``ordinary country.'' They accept the Constitution and its ban on armed force but say that Japan should participate in UN peacekeeping operations, the purpose of which is not to go to war in the classic sense but to maintain a peaceful world order.
Within the coalition, a majority supports the Hata-Ozawa line. Outgoing Prime Minister Hosokawa started out somewhere between the Socialists and the Japan Renewal Party, but inclined more and more toward the latter position, disagreeing with his own Chief Cabinet Secretary, Masayoshi Takemura.
But without the Socialists, the coalition would fall - unless enough Liberal Democrats come into the coalition to offset the Socialist seats. During the recent maneuvering over who would succeed Mr. Hosokawa, Ozawa and a couple of other coalition leaders toyed with the idea of forming a pact with Michio Watanabe, an earthy, forceful Liberal Democrat many of whose ideas on domestic and foreign policy are similar to theirs.
Mr. Watanabe was sorely tempted, since he desperately wants to be prime minister. But he could not get more than a handful of Liberal Democrats to cross party lines with him. So in the end, as much as the Hata-Ozawa group and the Socialists distrust each other, they have agreed to stay together. Hata, who is by instinct more of a compromiser than Ozawa, says that in private the Socialists are not as unreasonable as they appear in public and that he gets on well with them.
It is important to know this background in order to forecast the future of the coalition under its new leader. Hata, and even more, Ozawa, want political and economic change. But to remain in power, they will have to practice old-fashioned consensus politics, hoping that the taste of power will tame the Socialists and bring them into a more realistic appreciation of the world in which Japan has to make its way.