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DECEMBER 4, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 22


Katsumi Kasahara/AP.
Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori may have survived a no-confidence motion, but his days are numbered.

What Rebellion?
Just when Japanese were hoping for real change, the dominant LDP delivers politics as usual. Voters are looking for new ways to be heard
By DONALD MACINTYRE Tokyo

Koichi Kato launched his ill-fated bid to become Japan's next Prime Minister on Nov. 9, over a dinner of braised vegetables, grilled fish and heated sake. A heavyweight in the dominant Liberal Democratic Party, Kato was the guest of honor at the sumptuous meal, served in an elegant private room at a fancy Tokyo hotel. He had downed "three or four" small bottles of sake, according to a participant who kept filling his glass, and he was in a good mood. When somebody asked for his view on a Cabinet reshuffle planned by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, he dropped the bombshell: "I won't let Mori reshuffle the Cabinet." The stunning implication was that Kato planned to break ranks with the LDP and back an opposition party no-confidence motion against Mori. Days before, Kato had said on TV he would support Mori. Why, his dinner companions asked, had he hidden his plans for rebellion? "You don't show your hand in front of millions of viewers," Kato replied.

As the world now knows, Kato didn't play his hand well. Initially he stood up to intense resistance from the LDP. The man who would be Prime Minister vowed to see the putsch through, come what may: "I'm not scared of a thing. Japan will change from today," he declared on the morning of the vote. By evening, however, he and his band of would-be mutineers had lost their nerve. Threatened with eviction from the LDP, they abstained, ensuring the motion's defeat. Teary-eyed, Kato appeared on television to apologize to supporters and the public, promising to reflect on his "lack of ability." It was, as the Asahi daily editorialized, "pathetic."

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For a brief shining moment, Japan had dared to hope that maybe—just maybe—real change was under way. After ruling the nation for most of the past half-century, the LDP is clearly out of touch, bereft of ideas and discredited by countless scandals. It has run the world's second-largest economy onto a sandbar that it can't get off. With more guts, Kato could have toppled the deeply unpopular Mori, whose approval rating is now less than 20%, or at least dealt a blow to the LDP Old Guard. Kato had even hinted vaguely at joining forces with the opposition Democratic Party, a move that would have redrawn the political landscape. That he turned out to be just a plotter—a failed one, at that—in another nasty power struggle was deeply disappointing to many Japanese. Complained Kiyomi Tsujimoto, the Social Democratic Party's sharp-tongued policy chieftain: "Kato was only a reformer from the waist up. The rest of him turned out to be dyed-in-the-wool LDP."

What next for the party? For Japan? The LDP remains burdened with a deeply unpopular leader whose days appear to be numbered. Even Secretary-General Hiromu Nonaka—the man who bullied Kato's supporters into submission—said last week that the vote of confidence from parliament doesn't mean Mori has the full backing of the LDP. As a lawmaker close to Mori put it: "The ground hasn't really firmed up after the rain." So the coming months will see more backroom power struggles while a lame-duck Prime Minister waits for the axe to fall. Meanwhile, with the opposition parties in their wonted disarray, there is little hope Japan can throw up the kind of leadership it desperately needs to tackle its economic problems. "It's a mess," says Kunji Okue, an economist at investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Benson in Tokyo. "Japan is in a political vacuum."

Further down the road, the outlook is even murkier. The LDP is fearful of going into next year's Upper House election with Mori at the helm. But its bench isn't very deep right now. At the top of the shortlist is Yohei Kono, now serving as Foreign Minister. Bland and predictable, he has put in his time with the LDP, including a stint as party president, considered a stepping stone to the Prime Minister's job. But his clout in the inner circle was severely curtailed after he bolted the LDP in 1976 and set up his own party, returning to the fold 10 years later (the disloyalty has not been forgotten). With Kato's implosion, the man—and they are all men—considered the most prime ministerial is Junichiro Koizumi, a self-styled maverick who once ran the postal ministry. A lover of violin music and opera, Koizumi is outspoken and popular. He has been sounding the alarm about Japan's economic mess louder than anybody else in the party. But his plans to privatize Japan's massive postal-savings system—with $2.5 trillion in deposits, it would be one of the world's biggest banks—is anathema to much of the LDP; the system is a key pumping station for pork-barrel spending. Even Koizumi doesn't think the party will listen to him unless the economy falls off a cliff. "People haven't woken up to the crisis," he says. "When they do, I will have a chance."

The LDP machine still works, but it is rusting fast. The party clings to power by cobbling together improbable coalitions, rigging electoral districts and pressuring local officials to turn out the vote, opposition critics say. "The threats and pressure are much more intense than they were 10 years ago," says Yukio Hatoyama, head of the Democratic Party, Japan's biggest opposition group. "It is a symptom of the LDP's decline."

But Japanese seem sick and tired of politicians from all the big parties. The latest indication came Nov. 19 in a Tochigi prefecture gubernatorial election, where a small-town mayor with the support of unaffiliated voters upset a four-term encumbent backed by six parties, including the LDP and the Democratic Party. Such upsets are becoming more frequent—a recent poll in the Asahi daily suggests that 40% of Japanese are "floating voters" who go for the candidate, not the party. It is starting to look like real change in Japan will come from the ballot box, not backroom dinners.

With reporting by Sachiko Sakamaki/Tokyo

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