2000 VOL. 155 NO. 15
Days before falling ill, Keizo Obuchi visited a Tokyo hospital.
Matter of Fortune
by a sense of history, Keizo Obuchi was happy just being there for Japan's
Obuchi was a fatalist. "I am unlucky," he told reporters four days before
he suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. He was referring to scandals
over police cover-ups that had cast a cloud over his administration.
Although the alleged misdeeds didn't happen on his watch, the discovery
of them did. Yet the former Japanese leader could also be an optimist.
When he became Prime Minister 20 months ago, Obuchi credited his rise
to the top of the political ladder to blind fortune. "I've been blessed
with luck," he often said. In either case the 62-year-old politician
applied superstition even-handedly, blaming fate for his misfortunes
and crediting it for his successes. It was as if what he said or did mattered
Powerlessness was part of the image Obuchi cultivated, portraying himself
as an aw-shucks boy from the country who just stumbled into the leadership
of the world's second-largest economy. It was an effective strategy,
rendering him likable, unthreatening and, like former U.S. President Ronald
Reagan, coated in Teflon. Voters didn't blame him for Japan's problems
because they didn't think he was capable of doing anything about them.
ALSO IN TIME
Twenty-five years after communist troops entered Saigon and reunified the war-torn country, its people are eager to forget the past and catch up with the rest of the world
Lives After Death:
The war left a deep imprint on many
Saigon, Mon Amour:
A Time correspondent returns to the city he had to leave behind a quarter-century before
JAPAN: No News Is Bad News
After keeping the country in the dark about former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's stroke, Japan's powerbrokers turn to a status quo figure to nurse the country back to health
Obuchi's secret was to lower expectations
Mori is a safe, if uninspired, choice
E.L. Doctorow's enthralling City of God examines religious faith at the end of a bloody century
A sweeping new work asks yesterday's philosophers for today's answers
rise to power was indeed startling, although it shouldn't have been. The
bumpkin image was always a benign lie: Obuchi was a shrewd politician
cut from the same cloth as most of his colleagues in Japan's dominant
Liberal Democratic Party. Schooled at Waseda University, breeding ground
for many pols, he was elected at the age of 26 to fill his deceased father's
post in the lower house of the Diet in 1963. Friends say he always felt
intimidated by two giants of Japanese politics, Yasuhiro Nakasone and
Takeo Fukuda, former prime ministers who came from the same region as
Obuchi. "To fight against his inferiority," says journalist Kenji Goto,
who knew Obuchi for nearly four decades, "he had to have his own image."
The simpleton politician was born.
edition's table of contents
That's why his election as Prime Minister in July 1998 surprised--and
worried--many people inside and outside of Japan. Minister of Foreign
Affairs at the time, he was thought to be a nice enough guy but not an
inspirational leader. "Cold pizza" is how one American commentator famously
described him. But Obuchi proved the skeptics wrong, as the back-room
negotiating skills he honed making his way up the ranks of the ldp were
put to work uniting different factions at a time when it looked as if
the country's economy might collapse and drag the rest of the world down
with it. That nightmare didn't come true. "He was very, very Japanese,"
says Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo who was once a member of
Obuchi's ldp but later defected. "He might have been an outstanding thinker,
but he was not outspoken about it."
To be sure, Obuchi's economic plan relied on the tried-and-true formula
of his many predecessors: spend, spend, spend. He had the dubious distinction
of being Japan's biggest disburser of public funds, having pushed through
more than $300 billion in government projects. But he also won approval
for shoring up shaky banks and, perhaps more importantly, he didn't intercede
when foreign companies invested in big Japanese firms like automaker Nissan.
In recent weeks, though, events seemed to conspire against him, and friends
and aides say the fatigue was showing. Corruption scandals had begun to
pile up--one involving police in Niigata prefecture and another touching
his own family and friends. His fragile three-party coalition was unraveling,
as a one-time ally, Ichiro Ozawa, made good on his threat to pull his
Liberal Party out of the government. The numbers on the economy were still
mixed. Obuchi had a knack for surviving adversity, coming out on top when
everything seemed hopeless. He might have done so again, for he had one
extraordinarily good piece of luck: his political opponents bungled every
opportunity he gave them to seize the day.
Japanese leaders seem to come and go with the seasons, becoming indistinguishable
from one another. During the tenures of Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton,
Japan will have had 13 prime ministers--more if Obuchi's successor,
Yoshiro Mori, doesn't last. This fluidity, coupled with a consensus-style
of government, means an individual prime minister can't make much of a
mark on the public memory.
Obuchi may well disappear into the long list of the unremarkable. That,
however, is the one fate he wanted to avoid. What drove the man, ultimately,
was a sense of history. He cherished his ceremonial role of announcing
the name of the new imperial era, Heisei, after Emperor Hirohito died
in 1989. Colleagues said Obuchi wanted to survive in office long enough
to be the first prime minister of the 21st century and to officiate over
the summit of G-8 countries this summer. He made the first milestone
but not the second. These ambitions themselves are revealing. It wasn't
that Keizo Obuchi wanted to change history through his actions. He just
wanted to be there.
Write to TIME at email@example.com
TIME Asia home
Scroll: More stories from TIME, Asiaweek and CNN