Blossom Time in Japan

The first lesson - and political joke - for anyone learning about Japan has been that the long-rulingLiberal Democratic Party is not liberal, democratic, or a party.

At least until this week, when the conservative coalition of political factions that used to pick prime ministers in backroom deals allowed an open vote among its rank and file for the LDP's presidency. And, surprise, a liberal reformer named Junichiro Koizumi won. (See story, page 1.)

That was the easy part. For all of Mr. Koizumi's unusual bluntness about reforming the LDP and the country's deflating economy, he faces what is lesson No. 2 for any Japan watcher (and this is no joke): That Japan has been run by an "iron triangle" of LDP politicians, powerful bureaucrats, and business interests that scratch each other's backs. This system did produce the world's second-largest economy, but, after a "lost decade" of failing to end a slump, the triangle is cracking.

As a product of the LDP's consensus-style politics, Koizumi may not be the bold leader that Japan needs to restructure its economy and end protection of many business interests.

His maverick ways, which have made him popular with the Japanese, will be challenged by the LDP's residue of recalcitrant faction leaders, who have opposed any "creative destruction" of unnecessary industries and the unemployment that could come with it. Two recent LDP reformers - Ichiro Ozawa and Morihiro Hosokawa - helped to change Japanese politics. But they were quickly sidelined. In fact, Japan has had 10 prime ministers in 12 years.

What will help Koizumi as he tries to form a cabinet and force change on the bureaucracy is the political strength he gained from being elected by grass-roots LDP members. Public opinion doesn't always rule in Japan, but this small measure of democracy will matter more than Koizumi's prescriptions.

Despite a new openness to Japan's economy, the revolution is only half-finished. And the dangers remain high that its financial institutions might implode under the heaviest debt burden of any G-7 nation.

Blossoming like a cherry tree in April, Koizumi symbolizes a hope that Japan can regain its former strength.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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