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Next Step : Carving Out a New Politics in Japan : Sunday's pivotal parliamentary election offers the possibility of greater change than the country has seen in four decades. And reform is the byword.


TOKYO — In Japan, motion is usually a mirage. When the nation reaches what appears to be an inexorable turning point, it most often goes straight.

But even in a country where change comes so grudgingly, Sunday's election for the powerful House of Representatives presents a crossroads. When the government of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa fell in June with the suddenness of a rotted timber, the era of unchallenged dominance ended for Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)--the incongruously named conservative party that has governed here without interruption since its formation in 1955.

The immediate cause for Miyazawa's fall was his failure to pass a package of political reform bills that he had pledged to see into law after Shin Kanemaru--until recently the LDP's most powerful figure--was arrested for tax evasion in March.

But, in fact, the reform issue is just the wedge of a far broader critique leveled against the ruling party by a new generation of critics.

In their eyes, electoral reform is only a means; the end is the creation of a viable moderate opposition that can seize power from the LDP--and challenge many of the tenets of Japanese government policy since World War II.

The critics last week got a boost from President Clinton, who met with several of them in Tokyo, and from a Sankei newspaper poll that showed the LDP's popularity slipping to just 15%. These new reformers are seeking to capitalize on the vague but palpable sense of disappointment evident in Japan. Despite the country's spectacular economic growth in the past 40 years and the worldwide triumph of brands like Sony, Toyota and Panasonic, life for typical Japanese families remains less affluent than arduous.

As the memories of post-World War II poverty fade, Japanese families increasingly compare their situation not to a meaner past, but to the softer contemporary life many see on trips to Europe and America. The lingering recession--much like last year's slowdown in the United States--seems to be crystallizing broader complaints about the quality of life: the crush of commuting, the punishing workweeks, the high costs of housing and food. (The grocery store should be the most radicalizing institution in Japan.)

"Japan has the potential to be a much better country," says Kenichi Ohmae, a prominent management consultant and author in Tokyo. "We are working too hard. The numbers in the economic statistics are great. But life has not been too great."

In the widespread Japanese frustration over living standards there is the germ of the same turbulent force that has dominated American politics for the past 20 years: the frustration of middle-class aspirations.

Granted, middle-class economic anxiety isn't nearly as sharp in Japan as in America. Under government pressure, major companies still guarantee lifetime employment to their workers, a policy that is a cornerstone of Japan's political stability. (Not many governments anywhere in the world have been voted out of power with unemployment at 2.5%, the current rate in Japan despite the recession.) But recent reports of an impending Nissan auto plant closing and retrenchments (through attrition) at several major employers have sent shivers through many people in Japan, like the first icy wind of an approaching winter.

The people seeking to harvest this discontent offer a new direction for Japanese politics. Dominated for years by the gray and elderly survivors who managed the glacial rise to power through the Liberal Democrats' rigid seniority system, Japanese politics is now bustling with younger men agitating for a revolt from the center.

Morihiro Hosokawa, a former LDP governor, has formed a reform-minded centrist party called the Japan New Party; management consultant Ohmae has launched a Ross Perot-like citizen's movement, and two other dissident LDP leaders, Ichiro Ozawa and Tsutomu Hata, formed their own party in late June after leading the internal rebellion that felled Miyazawa.

All of these men are in their 50s--a generation younger than the Liberal Democrats' top leaders, exemplified by the 73-year-old prime minister.

However they fare in Sunday's balloting, this new opposition has already rewritten the calculus of Japanese politics.

For the past 40 years, there has seemed no real alternative to the LDP, which, supported by the bureaucracy and business, preached economic expansion and alliance with the United States.

The party's principal opposition, the Socialist Party, which ferociously fought alliance with the West, has struggled to extricate itself from its ideological roots in Marxism. Since for most Japanese, it has been unthinkable to risk leaving the Western alliance or abandoning capitalism, it has also been unthinkable to remove the Liberal Democrats from power--despite a cascade of influence-peddling scandals that have engulfed a succession of LDP-led governments.

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