TOKYO — Sosuke Uno is Japan's new prime minister--accomplished at kendo, deft with an artist's brush and a rather better piano player than Harry S. Truman. He spent two years in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp and wrote a book about it that eventually became a movie.
The rigors of that experience qualify him as a survivor. He will need to be. No Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) prime minister in recent memory has taken office in less auspicious circumstances.
His chances of succeeding, after predecessor Noboru Takeshita was politically bruised and then mortally wounded by fallout from Japan's Recruit scandal, do not look good.
Uno takes over a divided party, its divisions worsened by his own candidacy. Like Italy's Christian Democrats, the LDP is organized around factions and their baronial leaders. Uno's unhappy situation is to be a member of the one party group--the old Yasuhiro Nakasone faction--now most in disgrace.
Nakasone is an elusive fish who has eluded the grasp of the powerful Tokyo public prosecutor's office, which has been responsible for investigating the scandal. But no one doubts his deep involvement in the Recruit affair.
Because of his perceived focal role in Japan's worst postwar political scandal, Nakasone has had to resign from his own faction and renounce membership in the ruling party itself. How then has his faction given Japan its new prime minister even while losing its leader and its name?
The ostensible reason was this summer's economic summit in Paris. As the only Asian nation in attendance, the Japanese have always felt required to put their best feet forward at such international sessions, to which they attach inordinate importance.
With Takeshita wounded beyond repair, LDP leaders had a problem: Almost every senior politician with international experience was linked to the scandal. Uno was "clean" and had been Takeshita's foreign minister for 18 months. So he was called to assume the leadership of his limping party.
When the composition of Uno's Cabinet is examined, any "international" argument looks rather thin. Uno's successor as foreign minister, for example, has little experience in the field; other Cabinet choices reflect less high-minded international concern than a domestic determination to keep the money-driven factions happy.
Further, being a member of the suspect Nakasone faction, Uno was hardly anyone's first choice for premier. The man almost everybody would have preferred was the remarkable Masayoshi Ito, a veteran politician first regarded as a distinctly "dark horse" (the phrase is used in Japanese, another borrowing from English).
Yet When Ito was offered the job of party president (and, therefore, the post of prime minister), he shocked the party by saying "no," not once but twice. The more he resisted, the more his stock climbed with the citizenry. In the process, Ito became the Recruit Scandal's only hero.
To everyone's surprise, Ito had stuck to his principles. He demanded major reforms, including abolition of the factions, as the price for taking over in an hour of crisis. But the party barons would not buy the changes.
Though down in the polls, LDP leaders are simply unwilling to give up the perquisites and privileges that make it worthwhile to become a Japanese politician in the first place. Their attitude is not quite the Renaissance attitude--"now that we have the papacy, let us enjoy it"--but it's close.
So the messy job that the principled would not have, and that the grasping could not be allowed to accept, now belongs to Uno, who knows one more reason why Ito declined: On July 23, Japan goes to the polls.
The voting will be for the House of Councilors, Japan's upper chamber. Its powers, like Britain's House of Lords, are essentially confined to delaying legislation. The LDP holds 73 of the 126 seats being contested, and is certain to lose its majority.
Nasty defeat may be just what the ruling party needs to stir itself to reform, but cynics insist that the Japanese public will have forgotten the present fuss by the time they vote next month, and in any case Japan's opposition parties are too disorganized and divided to exploit the electoral opportunity that scandal has given them.
Yet other nasty business fouls the atmosphere. Public-opinion surveys suggest that a new sales tax (the first for postwar Japan) has caused more anger toward the ruling party than the scandal. The LDP is also in trouble with its powerful rural constituencies over Japanese concessions to Washington concerning farm products.
How may the Bush Administration proceed? Any sober assessment of U.S. ties with Japan should begin with the recognition that these profound links constitute the world's most important bilateral relationship. Despite tiffs over trade, the Reagan years left the relationship on solid footing.