One has to wonder if Japan's new prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, is bent on reviving the country's prewar nationalism or just tragically out of date.
Over the weekend he used an archaic word that evokes the emperor-worship of the World War II-era to describe the Japanese state. In mid-May, he referred to the country as a "divine nation with the emperor at its core."
The earlier comment inspired a torrent of criticism from opposition politicians and commentators who noted that post-World War II Japan is supposed to be a secular state in which the people are sovereign. Mr. Mori's use of the term kokutai on Saturday is keeping his critics incensed, since it represents the pre-war notion that Japan is a family-state with the emperor as father.
As it happens, Mori has just called general elections for June 25, so there may be some political method in his comments, even though they remind many Japanese of the thinking that brought the country to ruin a half-century ago.
Despite the furor the prime minister has ignited and related declines in his approval ratings, Mori and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party can face the polls with confidence. The LDP and its coalition partners will likely lose dozens of seats, analysts say, but their strength in parliament's lower house is so strong that they will continue to rule.
Another important factor is that Japan's main opposition party has neither the grass-roots organization nor the vote-drawing leader it needs to pose a credible challenge to the LDP.
"The coalition government will again take power," says Takayoshi Miyagawa, a pollster and political consultant in Tokyo. He calculates that the LDP and its partners will win 280 seats in the 480-seat lower house, which elects the prime minister. The coalition currently controls 336 seats.
Mr. Miyagawa, speaking Friday, said Mori's reference to the emperor as the core of the nation wouldn't hurt the party, since most voters aren't interested in such things. Some of Mori's colleagues in the party go even further.
Shizuka Kamei, a conservative LDP leader, told reporters last week that Mori's controversial comments "will function as a kamikaze [divine wind] that will help the LDP."
Although no LDP leader has engaged in bald-faced nationalist appeals, the party seems to be intent on fashioning a more assertive Japanese state.
Under Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, whom Mori replaced after Obuchi suffered a stroke in April, the government has pursued policies that strike some Japanese as indicators of a rising neo-nationalism.
In 1998, the government surprised the US by announcing it would construct its own spy satellites, rather than relying so much on American intelligence, and last year parliament declared Japan's red-on-white flag and a short hymn to the emperor as national symbols.
This year the government has indicated to the US that it would like to reduce its contribution toward the cost of basing roughly 48,000 US troops in Japan, a measure that American officials describe as penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Japan has long relied on the US for its security, but seems increasingly interested in taking a more independent posture in defense matters.
Seen in the context of these and other steps, Mori's references to the emperor's role may be part of a veiled nationalist appeal - hedged by backpedaling intended to mollify liberal-minded Japanese uninterested in rallying around a sense of national identity.
The LDP may be inspired by the success of Shintaro Ishihara, a former LDP member and an avowed nationalist, who trounced the party's candidate when he won the governorship of Tokyo in April 1999. Many Tokyo voters say Mr. Ishihara strikes them as a capable, albeit outspoken, leader.
In terms of policy, the LDP has little to offer other than promises to muddle through the country's decade-long economic doldrums. Mr. Miyagawa says the selection of Mori, a policy lightweight but a longtime party insider, was a sign that the party did not want a major review of the issues. Even "after the election," he adds, "the government won't change its economic policy," which features massive deficit spending to keep a sputtering recovery going.
Ever since voters briefly kicked the party out of power in 1993 and 1994, the country's politics has been an inchoate mess - marked by what Tokyo University political scientist Takeshi Sasaki calls a "poverty of leadership."
He warns that frustration with the lack of leaders may result in the LDP-led coalition faring worse in the elections than expected, perhaps losing its majority. "Possibly the coalition parties will need more help" to put together a majority, and that will mean a lot of "wild cards," Professor Sasaki says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society