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APRIL 14, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 14 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


From Zero to Hero

Good news took place on Obuchi's watch
By JONATHAN SPRAGUE Tokyo

Cold pizza can be rather tasty after a rough night. Dubbed a man "with all the pizzaz of cold pizza" upon his surprise elevation to the prime ministership, Obuchi Keizo turned out to have the cure when Japan's economic hangover hit home with a vengeance. When he took office in July 1998, the world's second-largest economy was clinging to a cliff edge by its fingernails. Obuchi didn't look ready for the job - a functionary who had climbed the LDP ladder by displaying more loyalty than leadership.

But Obuchi swore that cold pizza could be reheated. Within months, he put together a $560-billion bank rescue plan and a $370-billion stimulus package. Critics blasted him for pouring taxpayer funds into badly managed banks and unneeded infrastructure projects. But after those funds began flowing, the stock market and the yen turned upward. "The Obuchi government worked tirelessly to pull Japan out of crisis despite all the insults people threw at it," says Konya Fumiko of the Japan Securities Research Institute.

Also under Obuchi's tenure (at 20 months it was one of the longer premiership stints in recent years), Japan opened up to an unprecedented degree. Foreign investors took control of blue-chip firms like Nissan Motors and the Long-Term Credit Bank. Obuchi named radical thinkers like Internet guru Son Masayoshi to advisory panels that are urging further deregulation and internationalization. Japan reached out to the rest of Asia as well. Finance Minister Miyazawa Kiichi set up the "Miyazawa Fund" to aid Crisis-hit nations. Obuchi became the first Japanese premier to visit Cambodia and Laos, and the only leader of a G8 nation to attend the recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development meeting in Bangkok.

So was he the right man at the right time, or just a man at the right time? "He did what was unavoidable," says a Japanese banker. Obuchi never convinced the public that the economy was safe, thus failing to ignite the consumer spending needed to fire a self-sustaining recovery. And he leaves behind a mountain of government debt from multiple stimulus packages. His work was half-done. But he was the man in charge when Japan turned the corner.

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