APRIL 14, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 14
Toru Yamanaka - AFP
Man of the moment - New PM Mori receiving the applause of Diet members April 5
This edition's table of contents
Obuchi Keizo is suddenly stricken by a stroke and Mori Yoshiro becomes prime minister. Can he sustain reform and recovery?
By TODD CROWELL and MURAKAMI MUTSUKO Tokyo
PLUS: No Time For A Honeymoon
In the early morning hours of Sunday, April 2, a nondescript automobile slid quietly away from the prime minister's residence next to the parliamentary Diet building. Slumped in the backseat was Japan's prime minister, Obuchi Keizo, his wife Chizuko and a security guard. The car sped through the darkened streets, now lined with cherry blossoms, to Juntendo Hospital, where the premier was admitted. Obuchi told doctors that he had awakened in the night feeling ill and tired.
That was all the Japanese public was told too, when, finally, 22 hours after he was admitted to hospital, the government issued the first public health bulletin. Obuchi had been hospitalized due to "fatigue from overwork," announced the chief cabinet secretary, Aoki Mikio. In fact, the premier had already lapsed into a coma, was being kept alive on an artificial respirator and was fighting for his life.
Throughout Sunday, the government deliberately misled the public into thinking that while Obuchi was not 100%, his condition was not serious. Japanese journalists assigned to cover the prime minister round the clock were blandly told that Obuchi had awakened at 6 a.m. on Sunday and was reading the newspapers and monitoring the threatening eruption of Mt. Usu on Hokkaido. In response to newspaper editorials later expressing outrage over the deception, Aoki said: "We apologize for causing some reports to be false; it will not happen again in the future."
The government had clearly gambled that Obuchi would be well enough to go back to work on Monday as if nothing had happened. Yet Obuchi, 62, had suffered a stroke with partial cerebral bleeding, and it was obvious that he would not be coming back to work soon, if ever. As that fact finally sunk in, the government moved rapidly to find a replacement. Late Tuesday April 4, the cabinet resigned as a group, in accordance with constitutional provisions concerning an incapacitated premier. The following day, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) secretary-general, Mori Yoshiro, also 62, was elected prime minister by the Diet, securing 335 of 488 valid lower house votes. Now to Mori suddenly falls the difficult tasks of sustaining Japan's economic recovery and reforms, initiated in earnest during Obuchi's tenure. "It's like an order from heaven," he said about becoming PM in such sad circumstances. "Mr. Obuchi and I have been friends for more than 40 years. I feel my heart torn to pieces when I think [of him now]. I can hear his voice saying, 'I leave things to you.' What's important is to take care of [what] he had wanted to do, had been worried about."
Of late, Obuchi had been worried about a lot of things. Whether or not overwork contributed to his illness, what is certain is that Obuchi was carrying a particularly demanding load in the days preceding his hospitalization. Literally hours earlier he had had a specially bruising confrontation with Ozawa Ichiro, an LDP "renegade" who now leads the Liberal Party, an LDP coalition partner. Ozawa had just told the PM that he was taking his party out of the ruling coalition. (A rump of disaffected Liberal Diet members chose to stick with the LDP.)
On March 25 Obuchi had flown to Okinawa to inspect preparations for the Group of Eight Summit meeting scheduled to be held there in July, and soon after that, Mt. Usu in northern Japan decided to crack and spew out smoke and ash. Ever since the 1995 Kobe earthquake, when the government was severely criticized for slowness to repond, political leaders have known that they must handle natural disasters effectively or face electoral disaster. So Obuchi had kept in close touch with developments there, staying at his official residence for days at a stretch instead of going home even on weekends.
The rapidly approaching general election also occupied the premier's attention, demanding endless, niggling negotiations with the coalition partners. Then there were the scandals lapping around the PM's office. One of Obuchi's aides, it is alleged, took stocks for political favors in the booming DoCoMo telecommunications company before the initial public offering. The aide denies the allegation. Meanwhile, unemployment had reached unprecedented levels. The government's public approval ratings, once rather high, were tumbling into the basement. Said former PM Hashimoto Ryutaro: "The mental stress and physical exhaustion [for Obuchi] must have reached the uppermost limit." And this for someone with a longtime heart condition.
Despite the runaround initially given the public, once the extent of Obuchi's illness sunk in, the LDP moved quickly. "We cannot allow a political vacuum even for a moment," said Aoki, who was briefly acting prime minister. A consensus quickly settled around Mori as the logical successor. Indeed, it was almost as orderly as a vice president moving up to replace a president who had died in office. Though Mori heads his own Diet faction within the LDP, he has been a strong Obuchi supporter since they went to university together and is well-liked by LDP heavyweights.
Mori's only real rivals were Foreign Minister Kono Yohei (who once was LDP party president when the party was out of power and so is the only LDP president never to be prime minister) and Kato Koichi, who heads the second-largest Diet faction. Kato earlier ran against Obuchi for party president. But he is an outspoken critic of the ruling alliance with New Komeito Party, and thus its leader, Kanzaki Takenori, finds him unacceptable. The Mori government is, for all practical purposes, an Obuchi government with only minor adjustments among cabinet and party offices.
Japan is not a country led by a single charismatic leader. So as long as the LDP retains its majority in parliament, there should be no major changes in economic strategy or foreign policy. "Everything seems to be on track, regardless of who the prime minister is," says Supavud Saicheua of Merrill Lynch Phatra Securities in Bangkok. Adds Sompop Manarangsan, a Japan expert at Chulalongkorn University, also in Bangkok: "In Japan, the institutional factor is relatively stronger than in most developing countries." In fact, the first business day, Monday April 3, of Obuchi's hospitalization, the Tokyo Stock Exchange's Nikkei-225 index rose 1.9% on good economic news.
Even so, there are pressing matters that need the attention of a strong and stable government. This week, for example, Japan and North Korea sat down in Pyongyang to discuss normalizing relations. The meetings, which went ahead despite Obuchi's illness, were the first in nearly eight years. Tokyo wants Pyongyang to stop using Japanese airspace as a convenient test range for ballistic missiles. North Korea wants an apology for colonial occupation plus reparations.
A session with Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin, had been scheduled for later this month. Meeting with Japanese government emissary Suzuki Muneo, Putin agreed to an informal get-together with the new Japanese prime minister. Expected to take place somewhere in Russia but not Moscow, it will likely be Mori's first official trip abroad as prime minister. Another quick get-to-know-you meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton may also be arranged soon, as is customary with any new Japanese leader.
The biggest event on the diplomatic calendar is the annual G8 summit meeting, especially since Japan is the host nation this year. Tokyo is keen to be seen acting as Asia's champion, while fending off U.S. pressure on trade issues (pressure on telecommunications is building). The new premier lacks foreign policy experience, but the summit is in the capable hands of Foreign Minister Kono, who is an old hand at such things. And, of course, Mt. Usu is still belching smoke and ash.
The G8 summit meeting was meant to be the prologue to what is an even more important though as yet undetermined date on the political calendar. That is the general election, which must be held before the terms of the Diet's lower-house members expire Oct. 19. Before Obuchi's illness, it was believed that the election would be called just after the G8 summit. This in order to take advantage of the favorable publicity that accrues to such events. After all, pictures of the Japanese PM with world leaders can make great campaign flyers.
Once the new cabinet - at the moment the same as the old cabinet - settles in, the key question will be whether to move the election date forward in order to take advantage of the sympathy vote that the LDP should get from Obuchi's illness or death. That will be especially true if the perception, already growing, takes root that the likeable former premier had worked himself to death for the good of the country. "I feel sorry for him," says Tokyo building worker Ono Torao. "Everybody bullied him so much."
When then prime minister Ohira Masayoshi collapsed (and later died) just as campaigning opened for the 1980 general election, the LDP ended up with a landslide victory. "The Japanese voter acts on sentiment when it comes to somebody's illness or death," says Fukuoka Masayuki, a popular political commentator. So it would be no surprise if the LDP and its coalition allies decided to hold an election before that sentiment died away, possibly as early as mid-June.
Mori will probably follow the plan to fight the general election as a coalition. That is, the three partners in the alliance - LDP, New Komeito and the defectors from Ozawa's group, now calling themselves the Conservative Party - will coordinate their campaigns and support each other's candidates. In some ways, the LDP-Komeito alliance is a natural tie-up. The LDP is strong in the countryside, while New Komeito is powerful in many urban districts.
But the coalition is also a liability. The alliance has never been popular with the voters, who see it as a political expedient, pure and simple. Many people are uneasy about a party with ties to religious organizations - in this case, Komeito is linked to the controversial Buddhist Soka Gakkai - being in government. If the coalition does poorly in the election, Mori's tenure will probably be short. Kato Koichi will quickly blame the loss on popular dissatisfaction with the coalition and try to replace him as prime minister.
There are issues in the campaign besides pure politics. The opposition party candidates, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, will probably repeat a number - 4.9% - almost every time they open their mouths. That is the official unemployment rate, now higher than it has ever been since the end of World War II. The good news is that the Bank of Japan's quarterly "Tankan" survey has cautiously pointed to a gradual recovery of the economy.
Mori showed that he had a clear idea of the importance of economic management when he said, after being chosen party president: "I shall do my best to put the economy back on a growth path. The favorable results are just beginning to be visible now." But the recovery is still fragile, and highly dependent on what happens to the U.S. economy. With interest rates near zero and public finances deep in the red, the new PM has relatively few tools left if the recovery should falter. Another huge economic stimulus package, like the ones his predecessor pushed through, would only add to the huge public debt - now totaling about 130% of gross domestic product - without guaranteeing a full recovery.
These are all problems the tragically stricken Obuchi Keizo no longer has to worry about. At some point, doctors may have to decide whether to declare him brain-dead - and whether to pull the plug. It's scant consolation, but at least Obuchi's family, friends and supporters can take solace in the fact that Japan progressed during his tenure. It's a legacy Mori would be happy to match.
With additional reporting by Jonathan Sprague/Tokyo and Roger Mitton/Bangkok
No Time For A Honeymoon
A mountain of tasks awaits Japan's new PM
By JONATHAN SPRAGUE Tokyo
Elections Polls for the powerful lower house of parliament must be held by Oct. 19. They had been expected to take place after the Group of Eight summit in July but are now likely before that. With the previous Obuchi cabinet's public approval rating at just 28%, Mori Yoshiro faces an uphill battle.
G8 Summit The leaders of the G8 industrialized nations gather in Okinawa in July. As host, Japan wants to act as Asia's champion while fending off U.S. pressure on trade issues. This may not be easy especially given Mori's lack of foreign policy experience.
Economic Revival The stock market is up and business confidence is recovering, but GDP shrank in the last two quarters and unemployment at 4.9% is at a postwar peak. With interest rates near zero and public finances deep in the red, Mori has few tools left if the fragile revival falters.
Public Debt Government spending pulled the economy from the depths but piled up public debt totaling some 130% of GDP. Pressure is growing on Tokyo to map a way out of the morass.
North Korea Tokyo's No. 1 security concern after Pyongyang sent a missile flying over Japan in a 1998 test. Talks on normalization of relations restarted this week in Pyongyang following an eight-year hiatus.
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November 30, 2000