Tsutomu Hata may have sounded the death knell for Japan’s political dynasty. At a raucous Tokyo news conference last week, the popular former finance minister announced the formation of the centre-right Shinseito (Renaissance) party after leading 43 fellow parliamentarians in a mass resignation from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. It was the second new party to come into existence in a week, both of them made up of defectors from the scandal-tainted LDP. Hata said that they had no choice but to de-

fect after 73-year-old Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa reneged on a promise to enact campaign-finance reforms. Indeed, voter anger has reached boiling point in the wake of three big funding scandals since 1988, all involving top LDP politicians. The latest uproar provoked a snap election, to be held on July 18. On that date, predicted Hata last week, the LDP’s 38-year reign will end—and, with it, Japan’s postwar political landscape. Declared the 57-year-old reformer: “It is 50 years since the war. The order established at the end of that period requires some change.”

The election, called after a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in Miyazawa’s government on June 18, will hinge on three issues: how Japan should be led, which generation should lead it, and what role the island nation should have in the world. Many analysts predict that the LDP will lose its majority in the 511-seat lower house of parliament, winning only about 200 seats. But they are divided about whether Hata can form a coalition government of new parties and existing opposition groups and, if so, whether it can produce a dramatic change in the corrupt Japanese political system. For one thing, Hata and other LDP defectors count among their mentors politicians whose dubious practices they now vow to eradicate. For another, they are up against powerful business groups and a bureaucracy that opposes change. But as political commentator Reiko Tamura observed, “The people are ready for change after watching what is happening elsewhere in the world, like the victory of Democrats in the United States after many years of Republican rule.” However, she added: “The problem with the Shinseito is that it’s made up of many of the LDP’s cleanest and dirtiest politicians.” Still, many analysts say that the breakup of the

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by corporations looking to buy influence from politicians. In the view of Junichi Kyogoku, a political scientist at Tokyo University, “Hata’s defection threatens the cozy relationship between politicians who received money from companies and paid the bureaucrats to fashion the policies the businessmen wanted.” And fellow political scientist Takeshi Shimuzu predicted: “The triangle between the business groups, politicians and bureaucrats will weaken. This could mean the average consumer gets a better deal.”

That triangle is part of the often invisible barriers that frustrate foreign producers trying to break into the Japanese market with cheaper goods. Last week, Foreign Minister Kabun Muto said that negotiators from Japan, Canada, the United States and the European Community made substantial progress in eliminating or reducing tariffs on imports, lowering non-tariff barriers and opening markets to services. Leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized countries are expected to finally endorse the long-delayed four-way agreement at a summit next week in Tokyo. But with many trade barriers still

in place, some analysts maintain that a Hataled government would be much more willing to abandon the trade protectionism that has characterized the LDP era.

Still, any such adjustment is likely to happen slowly. Last week in Ottawa, where a smooth transition of government took place between the retiring Brian Mulroney and the aspiring Kim Campbell, external affairs officials expected little change after Japan’s election. Said one official, who noted that Canada had a trade deficit of about $3.3 billion with Japan last year: “It’s hard to believe that any new government would differ much in its economic policies, given the remarkable success they’ve had.” He added: “Basically, we’d be quite happy to see the next government follow much the same policies in terms of their direct dealings with us as does the present one. But for the most part, we have to say we’re pretty comfortable with the status quo, and not at all sure what to make of anything that might come in its place.”

If campaign rhetoric can be believed, however, a Hata-led government would give Japan a much more active role on the world stage. That is in sharp contrast to the policies of the LDP’s elderly leadership, which seems content with an economically strong Japan that plays only a limited diplomatic role. During a debate on easing Japan’s ban on sending troops abroad for peacekeeping duty, the cautious Miyazawa once said that “50 years is a short time” since the Second World War, adding that “we should not forget easily.”

Last week, Hata, whose new party plans to field at least 100 candidates in the election, held a series of meetings with potential coalition partners. The biggest, if unlikeliest, partner is the Socialist party, which held 140 seats in the last parliament’s lower house. The Socialists officially advocate a nonaligned, unarmed Japan. But a new chairman of the leftist party since January, Sadao Yamahana, has led efforts to overhaul its Cold War-era platform in hopes of offering voters an alternative to the LDP. The party has quietly abandoned its previous unconditional support for Stalinist North Korea. And last month, it adopted a draft platform that proposes reversing its longtime opposition to the 1951 U.S.Japan Security Treaty (which allows an American military presence in Japan) and the existence of the Self-Defence Forces, the nation’s military arm. Last week, sensing the Socialists’ first real chance to share power since a 1948 coalition government, Yamahana said that he is ready to co-operate with Hata to unseat the LDP.

In another meeting, Hata and Koshiro Ishida, chairman of the centrist Komeito party, agreed to begin negotiations on drawing up a coalition platform before the official start of the two-week election campaign on July 4. Komeito held 46 seats in the last parliament. Another potential partner is the reformist Japan New Party, founded last year by LDP defector Morihiro Hosokawa, which holds four seats in the upper house of parliament. The Japan New Party advocates more openness and honesty in government, and it has proven consistently popular in opinion polls.

For Japan’s diverse groups of would-be rulers, overcoming policy differences and agreeing on who would get which cabinet posts presents formidable challenges. To facilitate negotiations, Akira Yamagishi, chairman of the eight-million-member Rengo trade union federation, called for a

summit of opposition and new centre-right groups. Yamagishi said that “the non-LDP political forces must map out far-reaching national policies and co-operate in the coming election.”

A key player in forging consensus among the disparate parties will be Ichiro Ozawa, 51, a former LDP secretary general who is widely regarded as the mastermind behind Hata’s Shinseito. Last year, when LDP power broker Shin Kanemaru resigned from the party because of his involvement in a huge influence-peddling scandal, it was Ozawa who persuaded Hata to form a new faction within the LDP to push for reform. Hata’s 35-member group campaigned vigorously for an end to “money politics.” But, opposed by Miyazawa and other, older party leaders, the reformist faction finally made its decision to defect—and let voters make their choice.

Hata, a 24-year veteran in the LDP, is an unlikely renegade. An urbane, moderate pragmatist, he is one of many second-generation Japanese politicians who took over his father’s parliamentary turf. Unlike other hereditary lawmakers, however, Hata earned a reputation for humility and plain speaking—traits he may have acquired while working as a “salaryman” office man-

ager for the Odakyu Bus Co., which runs Tokyo commuter lines.

Hata was first elected to parliament in 1969, for his father’s old seat in rural Nagano prefecture. Long known as a specialist in agricultural affairs, he gained his first important post as farm minister in 1985 in the cabinet of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. Then-party power broker Kanemaru handpicked Hata for the powerful post of finance minister when Miyazawa became prime minister in November, 1991. In that post, Hata

made tough decisions to stabilize an economy still trying to adjust to the bursting of the inflated stocks and real estate “bubble” of the late 1980s. Last August, at Hata’s urging, the government approved the nation’s biggest-ever financial rescue package, worth a mind-boggling $89 billion, to kick-start the moribund economy.

But Japan’s economy remains mired in its worst slump in 20 years. And although recent opinion polls show a steady decline in support for the LDP, analysts say that significant numbers of nervous voters may ultimately choose the status quo over reform—resulting in inconclusive elections. Last week, the conservative daily newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, which has close ties to the LDP, predicted that a “chaotic political situation” will likely continue for some time. On an upbeat note, however, the newspaper added: “The moves towards realignment of political parties can be considered proof of Japanese democracy’s capacity to restore itself.” The hope among many Japanese is that after nearly four decades of one-party rule, a new political dawn is breaking in the land of the rising sun.