Japan's Kabuki Politics Shifts To a Sumo-Style Standoff

YESTERDAY the members of the lower house of Japan's parliament went through the somber, suspenseless ritual of ''electing'' a new prime minister.

In one sense, the selection of Ryutaro Hashimoto as Japan's leader marked the return of the long-dominant Liberal Democrat Party (LDP), which has been struggling to regain the premiership for more than two years.

But at a deeper level, Mr. Hashimoto's emergence solidifies a fundamental if incomplete realignment in this nation's politics.

In Japan's coming general election, voters will, in effect, have the opportunity for the first time in four decades to choose their country's leader themselves.

Japan now has two relatively strong political parties headed by authoritative, assertive men who are leading their colleagues from the front, not plotting strategy behind a screen. The two parties are set to compete over a variety of difficult issues and, at some time soon, Hashimoto must call general elections.

Then the voters will either endorse Hashimoto or give Ichiro Ozawa, the new prime minister's longtime rival and the head of the opposition New Frontier Party (NFP), the chance to form a government. Mr. Ozawa is already calling for elections as soon as possible.

During most of the cold-war era, the LDP lacked any real competition. The voters consistently gave it majorities, and the party decided who would be premier. The arrangement afforded voters little opportunity to ratify or reject policies - that was left to the LDP's factions, who generally fought behind closed doors.

Hurt by defections and corruption scandals, the LDP was denied a majority in the powerful lower house of the Diet (parliament) in a July 1993 election. It has managed a resurgence by linking up in 1994 with the dwindling members of Japan's Socialist party, the group that had been so ineffective in countering the LDP.

Nonetheless, Hashimoto's rise is a satisfying change for many people in and out of Japan. His predecessor, Socialist Tomiichi Murayama, struggled during his tenure to have the Japanese state acknowledge and apologize for some of its past misdeeds during World War II, but achieved only partial successes. He was hobbled by his reliance on the LDP, resulting in a vague and indecisive brand of leadership.

Mr. Murayama is also a dedicated practitioner of the essence of Japanese politics - privately massaging fellow politicians into a consensus and muting controversy. It is a style of leadership that many young Japanese are ready to abandon, which is one reason why Hashimoto and Ozawa are now facing off.

The two have many similarities: They went to the same private college in Tokyo, are both the sons of Diet members, and were members of the same LDP faction. They are both known to alienate people around them and to say what they mean. Ozawa is often called abrasive; ''arrogant'' is a label frequently applied to Hashimoto.

And both leaders are young by the standards of Japanese politics - they were born right before or during the war.

Hashimoto is the more popular of the two. His poise, pomaded hair, and three-piece suits contribute to a smooth, self-confident image that many Japanese find appealing.

Hashimoto gained some international celebrity last year by giving US negotiators very little quarter in a lengthy dispute over American access to Japan's auto and auto-parts market. But analysts say he and the majority of his coalition partners lack any real commitment to fashioning a new political system to replace the patronage-oriented politics of the LDP years.

''He's one of the most typical Japanese-style politicians, with ambiguous ideological views,'' says Minoru Morita, a respected political commentator, in an interview. ''Hashimoto is a moderate - he favors taking a step-by-step approach - and in contrast Ozawa is more of a radical or even a revolutionary reformer.''

While Hashimoto was tough during trade talks, US officials are probably taking comfort from his premiership. The controversy arising from the recent alleged rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three US Marines has put unprecedented pressure on the US-Japan security alliance. Analysts expect him to stand up for the alliance, unlike Murayama's more ambivalent pose.

The reason is that Hashimoto is known for adhering to the views of senior bureaucrats, albeit with an intelligent grasp of policy and detail. Where Japanese trade officials favor talking back to the Americans, Foreign Ministry bureaucrats want nothing to impede US-Japan security ties.

HASHIMOTO'S style may yet prove troublesome. One American in Tokyo who watches Japanese politics, speaking on condition of anonymity, says Hashimoto ''has an attitude problem ... [he feels] the American century has passed, and he has a difficult time concealing that.''

But tensions over Okinawa will not be Hashimoto's most pressing concern. That distinction belongs to the government's plan to use public money to rescue some ailing mortgage institutions, a proposal that the public finds offensive.

Ozawa and his party stand ready to make the bailout plan as difficult as possible for Hashimoto. The new prime minister, meanwhile, will continue to criticize Ozawa and his NFP for their links to a politically powerful lay Buddhist organization. The LDP accuses the group of exerting too much influence in political affairs.

Underlying these conflicts will be the impending election. The process may counter the growing political apathy of many Japanese, who have despaired over the quality of leaders they have witnessed in recent years.

''The best situation for this country,'' says Takashi Mikuriya, professor of political history at Tokyo Metropolitan University, ''is for the LDP or the NFP to win an outright majority [in the next election] and exert strong leadership.''

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