WORLD

Change of style

A feisty new premier raises Japanese spirits with a promise of strong leadership

SUVENDRINI KAKUCHI January 22 1996
WORLD

Change of style

A feisty new premier raises Japanese spirits with a promise of strong leadership

SUVENDRINI KAKUCHI January 22 1996

Change of style

WORLD

JAPAN

A feisty new premier raises Japanese spirits with a promise of strong leadership

The terms “fiery” and “feisty” are rarely applied to a Japanese prime minister. Humble, reserved, conciliatory—and forgettable—have been the traits most noticeable in those governing a chastised postwar Japan. No longer. With the election last week of Ryutaro Hashimoto, 58, to lead the parliamentary Diet, Japan gained not only a new premier, but also a new political style at a time when the country is hankering for strong leadership. “For the Japanese, Hashimoto is what Jack Kennedy was to the United States,” says Robert Orr, a Japan scholar at the Tokyo campus of Philadelphia’s Temple University. Hashimoto replaced outgoing Socialist prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, 71, restoring the top job in the governing coalition to the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which was forced by a corruption scandal to join with its chief rival in 1993 after decades of unbroken rule. The bushy-browed Murayama, who resigned under pressure from leftists within his party after only 18 months, was widely seen as a relic of the past; Hashimoto may represent the style of Japan’s future.

It is a welcome change for many Japanese, worn down by a four-year recession and a string of disasters including the Kobe earthquake a year ago and last spring’s nerve gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. Surveys show more than 50 per cent of citizens favor the new prime minister, who is still riding a wave of popularity after staring down the United States in an auto trade dispute last June as trade minister. American negotiator Mickey Kantor had threatened to impose a 100 per cent duty on Japanese luxury cars unless Tokyo agreed to reduce its export quota to the United States. Hashimoto’s decision to take the case to the World Trade Organization rather than give in to Washington played well to the public mood of resentment against the American tactics. His sarcastic reference to Kantor as “scarier than my wife when I come home drunk” was greeted with delight by the Japanese media. Says Orr: “He represents a younger generation of politicians and boasts a colorful personality.” Sometimes literally. Known for his oiled rockabilly hairstyle, Hashimoto once wore a lime-green leather suit to an informal busi-

ness meeting. His hobbies include mountain climbing (he has twice tackled Everest, though not to the top), making the intricate model planes that crowd his living room, and practising kendo (Japanese fencing) on the roof of the trade ministry.

But it is policy more than personality that distinguishes Hashimoto. Labelled a nationalist by some, he advocates that Japan move on from its “merchant state” approach to a more global political role. He has pushed for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and wants Japan to take part in UN peacekeeping missions. He also advocates breaking away from dependency on the United States for markets and foreign-policy guidance. Still, he supports the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty that keeps 45,000 American troops in the country. A few years ago, he raised hackles among Asian neighbors by expressing doubts that Japan’s war in the Pacific constituted a “war of aggression.” But he

signed Murayama’s intensely debated 50th anniversary apology for the war last August.

Hashimoto’s position at the top of the precarious three-party alliance, which includes the Socialists and the small Sakigake party, will rest heavily on his attempts to revitalize the Japanese economy. He will also be judged against his new rival, the equally assertive opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, who heads the New Frontier Party, a breakaway faction of Hashimoto’s LDP. Their first faceoff will come with this winter’s budget debate, which many analysts believe will lead directly to the campaign trail. Amid criticism that the prime ministership has passed to a new party without an election, Ozawa is demanding new polls, although by law Hashimoto could wait as long as July, 1997. “However hard he tries, there will be a general election by this fall at the latest,” reckons Japanese television political commentator Minoru Tada. “We are going to see new divisions and collaborations in Japan’s crazy political world.”

Even if Hashimoto’s term is short-lived, it is viewed by many outsiders as a key transitional period. Neil Moody, executive director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan, says Canada is anx§ ious that Hashimoto “pur-

0 sue reform and deregulation, g such as lowering trade barri| ers.” Canadian exports to

1 Japan, up 13 per cent in 1994, § are rising twice as fast as 52 imports, although Canada

still suffers a trade deficit. But Hashimoto has been less aggressive on economic deregulation than on foreign-policy issues, largely due to his close links with the country’s powerful bureaucracy. “He belongs to the school of thought that sees Japan’s industrial success as the result of the strong role the state has always had in the economy,” says Orr. “That is the Asian way of development and Hashimoto will stand up for his ideas.”

Still, foreign diplomats and locals alike see Japan’s new prime minister as a dynamic personality who is bound to bring a new energy to politics—as long as he remains unsullied by the scandals that have dogged the LDP leadership. “I am not sure whether Hashimoto is a clean politician or not,” says Yukio Nakayama, 47, a Tokyo computer software designer. “But right now he is a welcome release from our tradition of faceless leaders.”

SUVENDRINI KAKUCHI in Tokyo