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Takeshita Is the Wrong Man for the Top Job : Bowing to Politics-by-Consensus Shortchanges the Japanese

October 22, 1987|FRANK GIBNEY | Frank Gibney, the president of the Pacific Basin Institute in Santa Barbara, is the author of "Japan the Fragile Superpower."

If there was ever a time Japan needed dynamic and imaginative political leadership, it is now. In a sense the victims of their own single-minded drive for economic gain, the Japanese people are rightly worried about the prospect of recurring trade wars with the United States and Europe, the belatedly realized need to stimulate Japan's domestic growth and investment, and the hardships caused by the suddenly high yen.

They would like to be real "internationalists" and are anxious for a bigger place in the world pecking order, but they are still fumbling and nervous in dealing with people from outside their tight islands. In the midst of vast corporate affluence, the average citizen of Japan is still cruelly oppressed by prohibitive housing costs; inadequate road, park and sewage systems, and high consumer prices. He is worried about traditional ideas of schooling and creativity--and is beginning to wonder why all the recent Japanese Nobel Prize winners seem to be happily working in the United States. In short, the Japanese are ready for a few giant steps forward.

Something drastic needs to be done. Japanese citizens would welcome new ideas and explanations--even some good dusted-off old ones. They are beginning to like having communicators as their leaders. For, despite his political ups and downs, the outgoing "presidential" Prime MinisterYasuhiro Nakasone, who liked going to the people over the heads of bureaucrats and politicians, has had the highest rating with voters in recent Japanese history.

What the Japanese are getting in Noboru Takeshita is something else again. Takeshita is neither dynamic nor innovative. Now 63, he is a cautious "teahouse politician" such as only the Japanese system can produce. A veteran behind-the-scenes operator with a talent for fund-raising, he inherited most of the faction belonging to the disgraced former Prime Minister Kakeui Tanaka. Takeshita expanded his political base in the majority Liberal Democratic Party through the clever use of patronage and "money politics."

He is a master of consensus decision-making, which in practice means adjusting all of Japan's myriad special interests so that everybody (with the probable exception of the average consumer) gets a little hunk of the pie. Takeshita has never been known to harbor any original political ideas, and does not seem interested in them anyway. He knows virtually nothing about foreign policy, and has had minimal contact with foreigners. During the campaign for prime minister, the closest he came to a foreign-policy pronouncement was a January comment to a group of party supporters that, because of the high yen, American Marines stationed in Japan can't afford to visit the fleshpots off base, so they have their fun inside and get AIDS!

How did this man get Japan's top job? It can only indirectly be blamed on voters. Since the Liberal Democrats for almost 40 years have had a working majority in the Diet, the man chosen as party president automatically becomes prime minister--at least for the presidency's two-year term. Takeshita is not particularly popular among the Japanese. He has certainly not received a very good press. But among Liberal Democratic Party pork barrelers he stands ace high. He was selected--reluctantly, it is said--by Prime Minister Nakasone to succeed him, over two other leading candidates, when it became clear that Takeshita and his machine had a clear majority among the party's Diet members. Factors like leadership, ability, economic ideas and competence at handling foreign policy were, predictably, only lightly regarded by the party bosses.

There had been two alternative choices for the party presidency. Former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, although no world beater, is well traveled and knows how to handle the bureaucracy. Kiichi Miyazawa, the present finance minister, is almost infinitely better qualified than any of the so-called "new leaders" who were vying to succeed Nakasone. Miyazawa has held most of the major posts in the Japanese government. An imaginative economist and a confirmed internationalist, he is also one of the few top Japanese political leaders who can handle English with fluency. He has been almost alone among the Liberal Democrats in developing new and far-reaching policy ideas. Three years ago he advocated an innovative "double your resources" plan that would restructure Japan toward a policy of heavier domestic investment, with correspondingly less reliance on export-led growth.

Miyazawa has a wide acquaintanceship among world political and opinion leaders. He seemed the ideal person to bring Japan into the international picture as a leader in economics and diplomacy. A firm friend of the United States, he also tends to speak his mind on political issues. (The contrast between Miyazawa's direct expression and the polite double talk of the average Japanese politician gave him an undeserved reputation for anti-Americanism.)

Unfortunately, Miyazawa was more interested in economic policy-making than in mending fences in the Liberal Democratic Party. As a Japanese businessman supporter of Miyazawa once put it: "He has one big problem. He is too smart. He is too busy to curry favor with those ishiatama (rockheads) in the party."

If Nakasone could have helped push Miyazawa, he might have. But neither of their factions had enough votes. As a result, Liberal Democratic pols are getting their favorite in as prime minister. The country is badly shortchanged. At a time when Japan needs bold planning and long-range decision-making following Nakasone's lead, power has been given to a cautious temporizer whose principal objective seems to have been the job.

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