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Is This the New Face of Japan? : Dramatic coalition picks strategist Hosokawa

July 30, 1993

Nearly four decades of utterly amazing one-party rule in Japan is about to come to an end. Barring any last-minute defections from a just-formed eight-party coalition government, Morihiro Hosokawa will become Japan's first prime minister in 38 years who does not represent the Liberal Democratic Party.

So begins a new political era in Japan. But the new coalition government is fragile, patched together to clean out the corruption and money politics that put the LDP, still the largest party, out of favor with Japanese voters--and out of the coalition. Perhaps that's a good thing: Its long protective caretaking of business and bureaucratic interests hurt U.S.-Japan relations.

Hosokawa's likely approval as prime minister at a special session of Parliament next week could lead to domestic changes that might help Washington-Tokyo ties. Although it promises to uphold basic foreign and defense policies, adhere to free market principles and keep Japan's contribution to global peace efforts under the U.N. umbrella, the coalition's top priority is domestic reform. Among proposals are stiff anti-corruption laws, a ban on political donations by private firms, tax cuts for consumers (a demand-stimulating move that would very much please President Clinton) and a simpler electoral system.

The 55-year-old Hosokawa, young by Japanese standards, established his grass-roots Japan New Party just 14 months ago by adroitly rallying against political corruption in the LDP. But Hosokawa, a former governor of Kumamoto prefecture, is hardly a newcomer to Japanese tradition. Indeed, his aristocratic roots (18th generation) and connections (grandson of Prince Fumimaro Konoe, prime minister just before World War II) make him an odd champion of political reform. The graduate of Japan's Sophia University Law School and former newspaper reporter also comes out of the LDP tradition, having been first elected at 33 to the Parliament's upper house, the youngest member ever, in 1971. He represented the LDP faction most closely linked to pork-barrel politics.

But so far Hosokawa has proven a skillful and pragmatic politician, leveraging his modest parliamentary base to secure maximum concessions from parties that include the Japan Renewal Party, New Party Harbinger, Socialists and others.

Tokyo is still a long, long way from having a two-party system. But the coalition government, the first since 1948, seems to be bringing in fresh new faces, ideas and greater democracy to a post-Cold War Japan that's grappling, like other nations, with tough choices.

That's the good news. The flip-side worry is that with coalition, sometimes, comes debilitating gridlock.

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