MORE than at any time since the end of post-war US occupation, Japan is adrift.
The Japanese have achieved their goal of prosperity, but now their economy has problems they seem unable to fix. The political system that guided them for the past four decades has been in gradual collapse for more than a year, giving way to confusion and an effluence of rhetoric that inspires little enthusiasm.
Left standing is Japan's mighty bureaucracy, the officials who have shepherded the growth of the economy and the evolution of a stable society.
Many here are convinced that these bureaucrats stand between Japan and its future, but acting on that conviction is another matter.
Tatsuya Miyamoto, a student at Tokyo's prestigious Keio University, puts it plainly: ``In Japan today there is a lack of destiny.... We have to wait for new people with new ideas to come out. We need a new system.''
A group of politicians is trying to meet that challenge. Tomorrow, 216 opposition members of Japan's national legislature, the Diet, will launch the New Frontier Party.
The New Frontier Party (NFP) - known in Japanese as Shin Shinto - is being inaugurated with a glitz and media flair that is new to Japanese politics. Organizers have styled the event as the third great opening of Japan (the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 and the period of United States control following World War II are said to be the others) and the first the Japanese have undertaken themselves. To emphasize the point, the event is being held in the port city of Yokohama, near Tokyo, and a nautical motif is planned. The party's logo is supposed to represent a ship's steering wheel.
These politicians have so far been divided among nine fractious parties, but they promise that the new group will not be rent by internal division and vow to press for national elections. Analysts here believe they could force a vote as early as next spring.
The NFP will then try to defeat the unlikely coalition that has ruled the country since the end of June. The current government is led by a Socialist, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, but the real power lies with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), whose members hold 201 of the 294 seats in the coalition. (The Diet's powerful lower house, which elects the prime minister, has 511 seats.)
The LDP alone ran the country from 1955 until an election held in July 1993, when they lost their parliamentary majority. That led to two non-LDP coalition governments that were unified only in their opposition to the conservative, collusive, pro-business politics that LDP rule symbolized.
The LDP again became a governing party this summer by uniting with the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ), which opposed them so stridently during the post-war years. The association has caused the Socialists to abandon many long-held SDPJ policies, such as its insistence that Japan's military was not constitutional.
Realizing that voters have not been impressed by their rapid ideological backtracking, some SDPJ members want to remake the party, which could result in a large defection possibly to a third party. That could bring down the government and lead the way to national elections even without any agitation from the opposition.
Amid all of this political gamesmanship, there is growing consensus on the key question that Japan faces. Many people recognize the sense of rootlessness - ``We have to find a new energy and a new elan, otherwise we will gradually decline,'' says Yuriko Koike, a Diet member and NFP spokeswoman - and argue for drastic change.
Political analyst Minoru Morita frames the issue this way: Is Japan to remain a closed society with a big government, or become an open society with a small government? The task at hand is what is known here as ``administrative reform'' - decentralizing power, loosening regulations on business, and giving politicians greater control over policy.
``Japan is full of this kind of rhetoric,'' notes Tokyo University political scientist Takeshi Sasaki. The issue is, he continues, who can make it happen.
One problem, Mr. Morita observes, is that neither the NFP or the LDP - the two main parliamentary forces come tomorrow - are unified in their answers to Morita's question.
LDP leaders have claimed the mantle of reform, but the party also includes many politicians loyal to the status quo.
The more things change....
Some NFP leaders have openly pressed for the open society/small government formula, but the opposition alliance remains a divisive bunch.
It took weeks of wrangling just to decide how to choose a leader, which they finally did yesterday, electing a former LDP member and Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu to head the party. Running the NFP political machinery as general secretary will be Ichiro Ozawa, also former LDP member.
The past lives of these two men raise another problem. Many Japanese wonder just where exactly the ``new frontier'' is, when the key figures in the NFP were such prominent members of the system they now purport to oppose. Polls show only tepid enthusiasm for the NFP.
The mix and match nature of the two main parties does not bode well for the cohesiveness of the NFP. ``I firmly believe that another major realignment is required,'' Morita says.
What comforts Japanese
There is also no clear indication that the nation wants a radical remake of the way Japan is governed, one reason why a national election seems inevitable at this stage. A strong central government dates back to the reign of the shoguns, and it can at times be a source of comfort, as a recent instance of official intervention illustrates.
Recently a spate of shootings, including some murders, has worried many Japanese and caused commentators to wonder aloud about the erosion of the country's much-beloved ``public order.''
Three weeks ago the nation's top law-enforcement bureaucrat - Takaji Kunimatsu, head of the National Policy Agency - spoke up. He told police chiefs gathered for a meeting, ``I would like you to plan to eradicate armed offenses completely.''
In most other countries, such an order would be seen as grandiose and improbable, but in Japan it's possible to believe that concerted government action could accomplish the goal. More importantly, people here felt relieved that their government responded.
This reaction suggests why administrative reform may be difficult. ``Many people in this country are still satisfied with the status quo,'' says Professor Sasaki. ``That's the reality.''