EVERY four years, when the United States goes through a presidential election campaign, the rest of the world knows that it cannot expect major decisions out of Washington until a new chief executive comes to the White House.
Other countries aren't given the same grace period, and Japan is no exception. Newly installed Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata leads a weak minority government, and may be facing parliamentary elections as early as July. But in his dealings with foreign counterparts, he must do his utmost to behave like the leader of a strong, self-confident government. It's a rush course in authoritativeness for a pleasant and well-meaning but not quite forceful personality.
What if the international community's efforts to get North Korea to accept nuclear inspections fails and the United Nations decides on sanctions? Or, worse for Japan, what if the UN fails to agree but Washington insists on sanctions? That crisis could flare up any time this month.
Japan's trade dispute with the US also bubbles along, not quite reaching boiling point, but requiring decisions by early summer - before Mr. Hata meets President Clinton and other world leaders at the Naples summit in July.
Thanks to Golden Week - a succession of holidays from April 29 to May 5 - Hata was able to elude his baying pack of domestic opponents and rush across Europe for a series of get-acquainted sessions with some of the leaders he will meet in Naples: Italy's new Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, France's President Francois Mitterrand, and Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
The new foreign minister, Koichi Kakizawa, took advantage of the same holidays to tour the Middle East, becoming the first foreign minister to visit Jericho after the Israeli-PLO accords. Mr. Kakizawa is also Japan's first foreign minister since the late Saburo Okita to speak fluent English. But given the Hata cabinet's precarious prospects, no one know how long Kakizawa will be allowed to use his linguistic talents in the service of Japanese diplomacy.
The new government's problems were compounded by Justice Minister Shigeto Nagano's statement that the Japanese Army's well-documented massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanjing in 1937 was ``a piece of fiction.'' The minister, a former general, abjectly apologized the next day. But the damage had been done. A chorus of furious criticism came not only from China and other Asian lands, but from the Japanese media as well. On May 7, the day Hata returned from his trip to Europe, Mr. Nagano was forced to resign.
Two weeks ago, I suggested that Hata's biggest challenge would be to work out compromises within the coalition then comprising the government, including the largest single party, the Socialists. But my comment was irrelevant within days, when the Socialists stomped out of the coalition, charging they had been double-crossed by their partners.
In these confusing times, what's important to hold to is the underlying trend - not the twists and turns of politicians and parties quarreling and making up as the comfortable, predictable world they knew for nearly half a century dissolves before their eyes.
That trend, I submit, is for the Japanese to move from one-party government (albeit in a democratic context), to alternation in power between two major parties, and possibly a couple of minor ones, as in Britain. The competition between the parties will be intense. But the transition from one type of system to the other will not require 180-degree turns in policy as, for instance, the transition from capitalism to socialism might.
Japan had one-party government from 1955 to last year, not because the Japanese inherently prefer such government, but because the major opposition was the Socialists. On domestic policy, Socialists were not as far from Liberal Democrats as publicly perceived, often cutting deals on upcoming legislation. But their foreign policy stance was a public relations disaster. They opposed the alliance with the US, praised Beijing even at the height of the Cultural Revolution, and reveled in the warm receptions they got from Pyongyang and Moscow. As bored as many voters were with the Liberal Democrats, the Socialists were not a credible alternative.
But one-party rule usually leads to corruption. By 1993 the Liberal Democrats were so plagued with scandal that they lost the election. With the cold war over, the Socialists didn't look as dangerous, and were included in a coalition of former Liberal Democrats with a string of smaller parties dedicated to political reform. The coalition, headed by Morihiro Hosokawa as prime minister, collapsed in April. That was the government the new Hata administration is replacing - minus the Socialists.
A new balance of forces is not likely to emerge for months or years. The transition Japan is undergoing is more painful and more far-reaching than the American people's quadrennial rendezvous at the polls. At its completion, however, the Japanese people will have a clear choice of governments competing over policies, not ideologies. That is the hope, and politicians and voters must work to make it real.