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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

MAN 'WITH A FACE'

How the PM came out on top

By Ajay Singh and Murakami Mutsuko / Tokyo


ONE OF THE HIGHEST aims of kendo, the Japanese art of swordsmanship, is the ability to act freely in every situation. Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro, an avid practitioner of the martial art, has not achieved that freedom in politics quite yet. But there is no doubt he is one of the most assertive and successful premiers in Japan's recent history.

The evidence is compelling. A day after his return from a watershed state visit to China, Hashimoto won a fresh two-year term as president of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). (The premiership comes with the post.) Not only is it the first time in 13 years that an LDP president has secured a second term, but it is the first-ever election for the post to be held without even a nominal opposition. Further, the victory comes at a time when the Hashimoto government is enjoying an approval rating of 53% -- rare good news for a Japanese PM approaching the end of his second year in office.

The scenario is in stark contrast to the LDP's position only 11 months ago, when it was forced to cobble together a loose coalition after failing to get a majority in national elections. On Sept. 5, the LDP secured an absolute majority in the policy-making House of Representatives, when yet another former partyman rejoined the LDP, the latest in a string of defections from the opposition New Frontier Party. The LDP now has 251 seats in the 500-member house. While the majority is largely symbolic -- the LDP had no dearth of support in the house -- it is a testament to the party's return to a pre-eminent role in Japanese politics.

That's good news for Hashimoto, 60, who has played no small role in boosting LDP fortunes. He started out as a compromise leader known for his conservative and rigid views, especially on politically sensitive issues such as Japan's failure to come to grips with its wartime history. But Hashimoto quickly learned to be flexible. His clean reputation and excellent grasp of policy issues has won him widespread respect both at home and abroad.

In a country known for dour and colorless leaders, he stands out as someone "with a face" -- and an honest face at that. Japanese voters just cannot get enough of his blunt talk on television. They still recall how a hard-nosed Hashimoto, as head of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry in 1995, skillfully upstaged U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor in televised talks over the thorny issue of trade in auto parts. And many will never forget the newspaper photograph of Kantor holding a sword to Hashimoto's throat. The weapon was a gift from the American, and Hashimoto-san was teaching him how to use it.

Since becoming PM, Hashimoto has pulled off many more coups, including the successful re-negotiation of the U.S.-Japan defense treaty. He is widely admired for his reformist zeal and hands-on approach to administration issues. "I just can't stand this mess," he remarked early this year when the state-owned Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp. failed to prevent a serious accident at a nuclear waste-processing plant near Tokyo. Hashimoto has earned kudos for his "Big Bang" reforms, which involve restructuring the nation's economy, fiscal policy and finance sector. He is also committed to reducing the number of ministries from 21 to 12, slashing wasteful public works expenditure and improving social welfare and education. And if that is not challenge enough, he has vowed to "conduct a thorough probe into our conventional systems and vested interests."

Overcoming Japan's powerful lobby groups will not be easy, and Hashimoto knows it. Although he has managed to rally around him the many factions of the LDP, he is still caught between moderates and conservatives who do not see eye-to-eye on policy matters and could derail his ambitious agenda. Hashimoto recently acknowledged that his reform proposals have evoked criticism from members of the LDP as well as other parties and the press. But he believes there is relatively strong support for the general idea of streamlining government.

Hashimoto's reform push will be the acid test of his leadership. To succeed, he would have to unite the warring factions of the LDP -- a difficult task at the best of times. So far, the PM has preferred to remain a "lone wolf," not just within his party but also in the faction to which he belongs. While the isolation has shielded him from the perils of money politics, it has also made it difficult to win the support of key colleagues for his ambitious political and economic agenda.

His positive attributes aside, Hashimoto is one of the few LDP presidents without a power base or even a right-hand man or protégé. In Japanese politics, that is a severe handicap. But Hashimoto seems not to care. An LDP leader recently urged him to avoid a cabinet shuffle scheduled for Sept. 11. Comparing ministers to pickles, the colleague said: "In my hometown, we have great pickles that taste better the longer they are pickled. Perhaps you too will get a better cabinet if you keep it longer." But Hashimoto shrugged off the suggestion. "We don't have such pickles in my hometown of Okayama," he replied. Still, if he fails to realize his vision of Japan, Hashimoto-san may find himself in a pickle after all.

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