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Commentary | PACIFIC PROSPECT

Obuchi's Legacy: Fresh Air In a Closed, Creaky System

* The Japanese prime minister's quiet but important accomplishments are remembered.

April 04, 2000|TOM PLATE | Times contributing editor Tom Plate's column usually runs Wednesdays. E-mail: tplate@ucla.edu

It was hard to avoid the sad conclusion Monday that Keizo Obuchi, lying so near death in a Tokyo hospital, in all likelihood had worked himself to this state over one of the most difficult jobs in the modern political world. For Japan can boast of one of the world's most successful economies but also must admit to one of its most inept polities. The job of Japanese prime minister may not be one for mere mortals. For this reason, perhaps, even as Obuchi faded--only technically alive and on life support--he began receiving praise from around the world for at least nudging Japan, a nearly immovable ship, out of the safe harbor of tradition and into the unsettling waters of economic reform. He has been not only Japan's most successful prime minister of the 1990s, but undoubtedly its hardest working in memory.

He also has been the most pro-American of all recent prime ministers--as well as, hands down, the least charismatic. And he knew from charisma: The most dynamic non-Japanese politician of his lifetime, he said, was Robert Kennedy, whom he had met as a young student while visiting America. The private session at the Justice Department left an indelible pro-American impression on him. Though unfailingly patriotic and loyal to the idea of Japan as a preeminent culture, he became, as prime minister, increasingly convinced that, in some crucial respects, on the whole the American critique of his country was more right than wrong--and that the enemy of Japan was not Americanization or globalization but a corrosion within: Japan's own neurotic, inward-looking tendency to resist change at almost all costs.

Obuchi's way of answering that challenge was a style of reform almost the exact opposite of his predecessor Ryutaro Hashimoto, who was everything today's mass media could desire of a political leader. Hashimoto was handsome, dashing, confrontational and continually great copy. He was also almost wholly ineffective. Obuchi, by contrast, came to office plain-looking, plain-speaking, soft-spoken--and almost plain-vanilla boring. But he became remarkably effective at getting Parliament to move major reform legislation to passage, whether for controversial new defense arrangements with Western allies or long-needed internal reforms to begin opening up sectors of the national economy heretofore sealed off to outsiders.

The prime minister, then, fashioned himself not as Japan's president but as its majority leader--a small-bore version of Lyndon Johnson, patching, leading, cajoling behind the scenes to get Japan moving again. But with television's inexorable rise in Japan as the preeminent mass medium, Obuchi equaled the show that would have been canceled during summer previews. Behind the scenes, though, embroiled in the very kinds of negotiations that couldn't of course be shown to the public, he has been a star at the difficult art of consensus-building--a quiet master of persistence, patience and productive output.

But in the end, even committed reformer Obuchi was sucked back into the vortex of crabby Japanese factionalism. Last week, after the small Liberal Party, a key part of the patchwork coalition dominated by the mammoth Liberal Democratic Party in which Obuchi has spent his career, clashed publicly with his government's policies, threatening its hold on Parliament.

But he must have known political trouble would materialize in a form like this. For, months before, when I interviewed him in his official Tokyo residence, it was clear that the prime minister was anything but the foremost fan of the political system he had been entrusted to lead. He complained, with edgy frustration, about the endless politicking required of a prime minister simply to keep a coalition government together--energy, he suggested, that could be much better used to keep the country moving forward.

I was moved, and at the end of the interview, with the tape recorders off and the session officially over, ventured an unprompted outburst, only half in jest: "Obuchi for president!" After the translator laughed, she passed back to me his reaction: "You mean, Obuchi for president of the LDP?" No, I said, "For president of Japan." That comment drew a shy smile of appreciation from the frustrated prime minister, who might well have soared like an eagle had the Japanese system offered its leader some way of being able to take off without so many turkeys on his back.

Even so, political colleagues around the world have recognized him as a good man trying his best in a seriously flawed political culture. Bill Clinton, who has suffered the impact of the Tokyo revolving door--six prime ministers over the last seven years--recognized Obuchi as someone who was as good as America was likely to get from Japan, given the limitations of Japanese politics. In San Jose on Monday, as the president outlined a vision of expanded and intensified trade that would draw the U.S. and Asia closer together, Clinton graciously invoked the dying prime minister's tireless efforts to prepare the Japanese economy for the vigorous intrusions of globalization's inevitable challenges. It's too bad that Obuchi could not hear such praise from an American president, not often proffered to a Japanese leader.

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