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ASIA : New Premier Leaves Elitism to Japan's Past : Morihiro Hosokawa shuns traditional symbols of power. One radical change: He played tennis on a weekend.

August 21, 1993|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Japan's new prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, played tennis on a recent Saturday. At a news conference not long ago, he minced few words. He favors modest eateries and removes his parliamentary lapel pin when he leaves the office.

So what? To many Americans, perhaps, that may seem run-of-the-mill behavior. But in Japanese political circles, it's radical stuff. For the 38 years that the Liberal Democratic Party ruled Japan, private leisure time, public openness and down-home populism were hardly things championed by the nation's top political leader.

Now they are. Since being elected prime minister on Aug. 6 by an anti-LDP coalition, the reformist Hosokawa has swiftly changed the style and symbols of governance. Elitism is out; egalitarianism and openness are in.

The new style is known as "Hosokawa color." It includes:

* Plain talk. At Hosokawa's first news conference, the prime minister made striking changes in style and substance. Rather than sit at a table giving vague answers to submitted questions from pre-selected journalists, as was done in the past, Hosokawa stood at a podium, spontaneously called on reporters himself and gave short, clear answers.

The style itself, projecting a take-charge image, provoked news coverage, with many analysts comparing the youthful new prime minister with his American counterpart, President Clinton.

But the substance of this address was more than just style. Hosokawa vowed he would enact political reform by year's end and accept political responsibility if he failed. He also described Japan's involvement in World War II as a "war of aggression . . . a mistaken war," a first for a Japanese prime minister.

"For many years, prime ministers of Japan have been very vague because they didn't want to take responsibility," said Ikuo Kabashima, a Tsukuba University political science professor. "But Hosokawa is very clear."

His Cabinet members are also speaking plainly, from demystifying the national budget debate to blunt calls for more foreign workers.

* Public openness. The old political style of cutting secret deals in exclusive restaurants, known as ryotei seiji , is out. Hosokawa uses more egalitarian hotels and restaurants for meetings; participants will often hold a news conference afterward to discuss results.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Masayoshi Takemura recently pledged to try to explain for the first time what that office's hidden annual budget of $11 million is spent on. He is the first to make that promise.

Symbolically, the Hosokawa Cabinet took its inaugural photo outdoors in a garden rather than the traditional pose indoors. They stood at the same level on the grass rather than vertically arranged on steps. Lower House Speaker Takako Doi has also added an egalitarian air to the Parliament, addressing her colleagues with the courtesy title san rather than kun , which implies the Speaker's superiority.

* Political independence. Hosokawa and many of his allies, such as Ichiro Ozawa, secretary general of the Japan Renewal Party, aim to take back control of policy-making from bureaucrats.

For starters, the prime minister has said he intends to write as many of his own speeches himself or with the help of a newly appointed speech writer, a departure from the traditional reliance on bureaucrats. He has also served notice that most of each ministry's policy affairs secretaries will be chosen from the ranks of political experts rather than bureaucrats.

* Personal freedom. In small but significant ways, Hosokawa has asserted his own likes and dislikes, serving as a role model for individual choice.

One recent Saturday, for instance, Japan's news was dominated by images of Hosokawa in white sweats and pink polo shirt playing tennis. In this workaholic nation, the image sent a powerful message that relaxing on weekends is OK. "I want to value each other's privacy on Saturdays and Sundays," the Asahi newspaper quoted him as saying.

When Hosokawa recently visited flood victims in Kagoshima, he declined to wear the khaki uniform routinely worn by other VIPs on similar inspections. Instead, he wore a dark blue suit, saying simply he saw no reason to change.

When he leaves his office, he takes off his parliamentary lapel pin, a symbol of power that many politicians wear day and night. Asked why, Hosokawa was succinct: "I don't like it."

To be sure, some analysts suggest Hosokawa is going out of his way to appear independent to quash assumptions he is controlled by Ozawa. Others dismiss the changes as mere symbols, not substance, such as using champagne glasses rather than traditional sake cups for the inaugural toast.

But public support is running at feverish levels, from the Yomiuri newspaper's finding of 76% to TV Asahi's finding of 84%--by far historic highs. "A change in symbols," one TV commentator said, "can also lead to a change in substance."

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