2000 VOL. 155 NO. 15
Mori may have shone on the rugby pitch, but his career in politics
has been touched by scandal and steeped in the pork-barrel tradition.
new P.M. is a veteran politico, but can Yoshiro Mori hold together the
fragile ruling coalition?
With the prime minister in a coma, a shaky government coalition in trouble,
a volcano erupting and an economy still stuck in low gear, who did Japan's
politicians find to lead them out of this mess? Some would describe him
as a scandal-tainted party hack--a man with no discernible ideology
who in recent months has managed to insult Americans, Okinawans, Osakans,
people with aids, the upper chamber of parliament, newspaper reporters,
teachers and leaders of opposition political parties. Oh, and he is said
to be so cautious that he has "the heart of a flea."
Yoshiro Mori was picked to replace an incapacitated Keizo Obuchi last
week primarily because within the backroom world of Japanese politics,
he's known as a coordinator. Since the dominant Liberal Democratic Party
is riddled with factionalism and the ruling three-party coalition is
in danger of crumbling, what the government needs most is a man who can
hold things together. In that regard, Mori is cast from the same mold
as his predecessor Obuchi. "If you prefer the status quo, Mori is the
choice," says Yasunori Sone, an expert in Japanese politics at Keio University.
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members of Mori's own party have been hard-pressed to laud their new
leader. "We don't have any qualified candidates, so he'll have to do,"
said lower house member Kazuo Aichi last week. Another Diet member, Ichizo
Ohara, allowed that Mori was "good at arranging things." But Hiromu Nonaka,
considered the shadow shogun of Obuchi's administration, said last fall
that Mori "lacks quality as a politician." Recently, Mori called Osaka
a "spit-pot" where people care only about money and said Americans stocked
up on guns in preparation for Y2K while Japanese bought rice.
edition's table of contents
It's difficult to attach any particular issue to Mori's name, except for
the kind of big-ticket project that ldp politicians typically love. He
has pushed aggressively to build a new bullet train route to his home
region, Kanazawa, on Japan's west coast, to the tune of $14 billion. During
his first press conference last week, he made it clear he will continue
the profligate spending of the Obuchi administration, which has doled
out more than $300 billion. "I want to continue with public works projects,
as they have a natural impact on the economy," he said. "Right now the
economy is slowly recovering. We want it to turn into a full-fledged
Mori has politics in his blood. Both his father and grandfather were popular
mayors in his hometown. But he didn't have a happy childhood and has complained
that his father didn't have time for him. His father was drafted into
the army just after Mori was born, in 1937, and didn't come home until
after World War II had ended. His mother died around that time, and Mori
was raised by his grandparents.
He initially worked as a newspaper reporter in Tokyo and was elected to
the Diet for the first time in 1969. He has served stints as minister
of education and of trade. Like many politicians, he was tainted by the
1988 Recruit insider-trading scandal that brought down the administration
of then-Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. Mori received 30,000 shares
of Recruit Cosmos stock before it was issued. He was also accused of bribery
in connection with two other scandals exposed in 1992 and 1997, charges
he continues to deny. So many politicians were implicated that most, like
Mori, survived unscathed.
He has much in common with Obuchi. Like his predecessor, Mori "is not
really aggressive in presenting his own views, or he doesn't have any
views," says political analyst Shigenori Okazaki. Both 62, Mori and Obuchi
attended Waseda University at the same time and were partners in the university's
Yubenkai, a debating society that has produced many political luminaries.
They belonged to rival ldp factions but employed similar tactics to win
favor from colleagues.
If their political styles are alike, their personal appearances contrast
sharply. Obuchi has always seemed somewhat nerdy; he looked awkward throwing
out the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs baseball game last May. Mori is
a physically imposing man, standing 1.75 m tall and weighing 98 kg, and
was sometimes mistaken for a bodyguard when he accompanied his political
elders. He played rugby in high school and has surrounded himself with
friends from the sports world, like Yomiuri Giants outfielder Hideki Matsui.
He has recruited three retired athletes--an Olympic skater, a soccer
player and a wrestler--to run for the legislature. "He follows the rugby
spirit--in other words, the spirit of fair play," says the wrestler,
Hiroshi Hase, now a member of the upper house of parliament. "He values
teamwork and harmony. He listens to people and acts like a commander."
Mori will need those skills and more, for the challenge he now faces makes
a rugby scrum look like a tea party.
With reporting by DONALD MACINTYRE, SACHIKO SAKAMAKI and HIROKO TASHIRO/Tokyo
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