2000 VOL. 155 NO. 15
The new Prime Minister is welcomed by lawmakers in Japan's Diet
Takes the Helm
Obuchi felled by a stroke, a rugby-loving stalwart of the ruling party
suddenly becomes Prime Minister. Can he shed his bland image and lead
the nation back to prosperity?
Yoshiro Mori's first acts as Japan's new Prime Minister was to have himself
photographed last week among the cherry blossoms at a Tokyo garden. The
pictures, distributed to the nation's press, were meant to convey optimism--in
Japanese tradition, the delicate pink flower represents a new beginning.
But Mori will have to accomplish more than symbolic posturing to convince
skeptical countrymen that his sudden accession to power is an auspicious
event. Speaking to journalists last week, the 62-year-old ruling party
stalwart had little to say about his vision for the nation, promising
only that, "Nothing will change."
There's something to be said, perhaps, for low expectations. Mori's predecessor
Keizo Obuchi came to power 20 months ago amid similarly limited popular
enthusiasm. Before he was incapacitated last week by a stroke that left
him in a coma, Obuchi had managed to prove skeptics wrong. He didn't bring
Japan's economy roaring back, or solve some of the nation's other intractable
problems, but Obuchi allowed a measure of financial liberalization that
may have prepared the country for a rebound. Now it's up to Mori, a former
journalist who is practically unknown outside political circles, to emerge
from his own Liberal Democratic Party straitjacket and try to lead a nation
There is little doubt that Japan needs change on a massive scale. The
country has yet to pull out of its decade-old funk; its economy is stuck
in low gear. Lavish public spending programs have failed to prime the
pump, and consumers are so nervous about the future that they're reluctant
to spend. A higher percentage of people are out of work now than at any
time since the end of World War II. And there are troubling new concerns,
including police corruption scandals, the unraveling of the three-party
ruling coalition, mishaps in the country's nuclear energy program and
a North Korea that swings between diplomatic initiatives and missile launches
over Japanese territory. Mother Nature has weighed in, too: a volcanic
eruption in Hokkaido late last month turned thousands of villagers into
refugees, presenting Tokyo with yet another crisis, and yet another bill.
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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
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faces many of the same problems Obuchi did when he took office: a rigid
bureaucracy, bloated public debt, an absence of transparency in government
and the lack of political will to take tough measures to reform political
and financial institutions. There is also a growing national disdain for
politicians. In a recent survey, Japanese students identified politics
as the least desirable profession--even the much-maligned bureaucracy
fared better. Mori's first task will be to restore some semblance of confidence
in the government and its ability to solve problems. That won't be easy.
When confronted with crises, whether it was the Kobe earthquake in 1995,
the Tokaimura nuclear accident last fall or Obuchi's illness last week,
the government has seemed consistently flat-footed. And worse, it has
often lied to the public about what is really going on.
edition's table of contents
The government is particularly prone to dishonesty regarding its leaders'
health. In 1980, Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira died after a heart attack.
But the public had been told he was suffering from mild angina. In 1992,
Vice Prime Minister Michio Watanabe's pancreatic cancer diagnosis was
covered up; he was said to have gall stones. Following the accident at
Tokaimura last fall, officials delayed informing residents about the dangerous
levels of radiation to which they were being exposed. Obuchi took some
heat again in March for blithely sitting down for a haircut shortly after
two commuter trains collided, causing Japan's first subway accident fatalities.
Perhaps with that earlier criticism in mind, Obuchi's administration was
determined not to let the Hokkaido volcano catch the government unprepared.
Obuchi personally monitored the situation at his office and residence
and sent top aides to the scene. He canceled a trip to Osaka as thousands
of people were evacuated and set up in temporary shelters. But the strain
soon took its toll on the Prime Minister. On April 1, he had an emotional
meeting with longtime political friend Ichiro Ozawa, who was finally making
good on threats to defect from the ruling coalition and take his Liberal
Party with him. That night, Obuchi skipped a popular singer's wedding,
where he was supposed to toast the couple. At 1 a.m. on April 2, his personal
physician drove him to Tokyo's Juntendo University Hospital. (No government
driver was available, according to Akitaka Saiki, an Obuchi aide. Nor
was an ambulance called; Obuchi's aides say his condition didn't seem
serious enough to merit one. Other politicians speculated last week that
Obuchi's team was afraid word of his condition might reach the press .)
What happened from that point onward is unclear. None of Obuchi's doctors
has issued a statement or answered questions about his illness. The Juntendo
University Hospital has a reputation for zealously guarding patients'
privacy, which is why politicians favor it. Obuchi's top aide, Mikio Aoki,
finally briefed reporters about the hospitalization late on the night
of April 2, nearly 24 hours after the Prime Minister had been admitted--and
even then, Aoki claimed Obuchi was suffering from exhaustion. The next
morning, however, he announced that Obuchi had fallen into a coma the
night before, contradicting his earlier statement. Two hours before losing
consciousness, Aoki said, Obuchi had asked him to take charge of the government
temporarily. But Japanese newspapers reported that ldp leaders had convened
Sunday morning and picked Aoki to be the stand-in; Japan has no automatic
succession procedure when a leader dies or becomes incapacitated. Mori
was immediately put on a short list of three candidates, according to
press reports, and was picked after several meetings on Sunday, within
24 hours of Obuchi's hospitalization.
The Defense Agency takes its orders from the Prime Minister and would
be unable to react if there were nobody to replace an incapacitated leader.
Yet an agency official told Time that most people in his department found
out about Obuchi's condition the same way everyone else did: by watching
television. "An appalling lack of crisis management was exposed to the
world," says Manabu Hasegawa, a journalist who wrote a book in 1993 about
the cover-up of politicians' illnesses. Says Obuchi's spokesman, Akitaka
Saiki: "This has never happened before. We don't have manuals to cope
with this situation."
Yoshiro Mori could probably use a manual on government about now. Like
most other Japanese politicians, he has spent much of his career grabbing
power as an end in itself, not as a means for some greater purpose. "He
doesn't seem to have his own clear policies," says political commentator
Eiji Tominomori. Those are nearly the same words that had been used to
describe Keizo Obuchi when he took office. Keith Henry, a political analyst
with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Japan Program in Tokyo,
says Mori's ruling principle is the same as Obuchi's: "Show me where you're
going, and I'll lead you there."
It's not an inspiring philosophy, but to his credit, Obuchi did slow Japan's
economic decline, using a traditional government-spending binge and a
not-so-traditional package of banking reforms. He pushed through a $500
billion plan to recapitalize some of the country's weaker banks and shore
up a deposit-insurance scheme. Those steps kept banks from collapsing
and gave depositors confidence that they wouldn't lose their funds. As
a result, "Japanese are much more optimistic now than when he first took
over," says Brian Rose, senior economist at Warburg Dillon Read in Tokyo.
(In an ironic twist to his economic legacy, the Tokyo stock market on
April 3 climbed to its highest level in years.)
Obuchi's economic package was also accompanied by revolutionary changes
in Japan's corporate sector. There have been banking mergers, foreign
acquisitions, restructuring of blue-chip companies and layoffs--all
of which would have been impossible in the recent past. Obuchi didn't
make those things happen, of course. But he didn't stand in their way,
either. "He could have screwed things up and he didn't," says Russell
Jones, an economist at Lehman Brothers in Tokyo.
Will Mori screw things up? Like Obuchi, he is not considered a reformer;
even his advisers can say little about his economic thinking other than
that his policies will be "like Obuchi's." In the short term, Mori isn't
likely to do much. This year's budget has already been passed, and things
can pretty much run on auto-pilot. "Analysts have derided Japan for being
slow in putting policy together and getting it out the door," says m.i.t.'s
Henry. "They ain't seen nothing yet in terms of paralysis." But the day
of reckoning is not far away. All the planned government spending to revive
the economy--more than $960 billion--is adding to a ballooning national
debt now estimated at 125% of the country's gdp and equivalent to half
of all public savings. "What they are doing is completely unsustainable,"
says Rose. "They are paying for everything with debt, and they can't continue
that much longer." One of Obuchi's top economic advisers, Ichizo Ohara,
concedes as much. "Supporting the economy by expanding spending has reached
a limit," he says. "It's extremely distorted and abnormal to use half
of savings to support debt."
But Mori might find it hard to give up old habits. Although there have
been signs of a recovery--the stock market is booming, companies are
restructuring and dotcom fever is catching on--the economy slid back
into recession last year and unemployment, once unheard of, is climbing
ever higher. What's more, Mori's job will be on the line: elections to
the Diet must be scheduled some time in the next six months. Don't expect
the Prime Minister to stick his neck out for economic reform.
The Lower House has to be dissolved and an election held by October, but
the ldp is split on the exact timing. One faction wants to hold a snap
poll to take advantage of the sympathy generated by Obuchi's illness and
to gain a new mandate before July's G-8 summit of industrial nations
in Okinawa. Another group wants to wait until after the summit, calculating
that Japanese voters will warm to Mori after they have seen him rubbing
shoulders with world leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. The opposition
parties are in disarray: they never figured out how to deal with Obuchi
and will likely have a hard time defeating the ldp if it can make an effective
talisman of its comatose leader. Mori himself invoked Obuchi's name in
every answer during a 45-minute press conference last week. "I feel like
I can hear the voice of Prime Minister Obuchi from his bed, saying, 'I
trust you, so do it well,'" he intoned.
But Mori shouldn't get too comfortable in the Prime Minister's residence.
Obuchi's administration was losing steam and its popularity was declining.
Plus, Mori has to manage divisions within the lpd, and the ruling coalition
needs a party unpopular with many Japanese, Komeito, in order to stay
in power. He may seem on top of the world right now. But those cherry
blossoms that provided such a pretty photo-op last only a few days. If
Mori isn't careful, his tenure at the top of Japan's political heap could
be similarly short.
With reporting by DONALD MACINTYRE, SACHIKO SAKAMAKI, HIROKO TASHIRO
and TAKASHI YOKOTA/Tokyo
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