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Hata: Japan’s Hope to End Paralysis

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tsutomu Hata began using wooden business cards when he was promoting Japanese wood products two decades ago, and he still carries them.

When he was pitching silk as one of the Parliament’s agricultural experts, he switched to silk underwear. He continues to wear silk.

Hata still dutifully dons short-sleeved summer suits to promote energy conservation, cheerfully oblivious to the outdated look.

And the man who will become Japan’s next prime minister still insists that Japanese intestines are longer than Western guts, an infamous comment he made in 1987 when he was agricultural minister arguing that foreign beef imports should be banned because the meat would be indigestible here.

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Hata, 58, who is expected to win election as Japan’s prime minister on Monday, is one of the nation’s consummate political pitchmen. Sell him on an idea, say those close to him, and he’ll bite into it like a bulldog. Then he will spend hours trying to win converts, using his famous gift of gab, likable manner and tenacity.

He may lack the intellectual intensity and strategic vision of his chief political ally, Ichiro Ozawa of the Japan Renewal Party, who is regarded as Hata’s brain. But at a time of deep political turmoil and policy paralysis, of sharp disputes within the fragile eight-party governing coalition, Hata’s nice-guy approach, his ability to bring people together and coax them into consensus may be what the nation needs most now, analysts say.

“He’s basically a man of moderation and harmony and might be appropriate at this time of political fluidity and the need to form a majority coalition,” said Takashi Inoguchi, a Tokyo University political science professor. “A more spearheading kind of leader would create too many enemies.

“But the flip side of the coin is that his political content is so . . . shallow that some people find him a little boring.”

As a soon-to-be prime minister, Hata’s single greatest defining factor is his symbiotic relationship with Ozawa, analysts say. Hata provides the sales pitch for Ozawa’s policy, they say, seducing the public through persuasion. His way contrasts with Ozawa’s heavy-handedness, and his boyish charm serves as “the mask to cover the dirty face of Ozawa,” one analyst said.

Hata brings few of the public expectations that surrounded the man he will succeed, Morihiro Hosokawa. Hosokawa, who announced his intent to resign two weeks ago under a cloud of questionable financial transactions, was a fresh and relatively unknown political aristocrat. He symbolized the public’s desire for change from the system of back-room deals and corrupt money politics honed under the Liberal Democratic Party’s 38-year reign.

Hata, however, is very much an Establishment politician, a protege of the master of money politics, former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. Still, he is relatively free of the taint of scandal--he has a poor reputation as a fund-raiser and has few ties to the powerful construction industry--which has long fueled Japanese politics.

He says it was precisely his exposure to the dark side of Japanese politics as chief of the LDP’s Election Bureau in 1984 that persuaded him to try to reduce the need for money in elections.

“If there is anyone who has seen both the good and bad side of Japanese politics, it is me,” he told a Japanese magazine last year. “Japan is now too important to have its political reputation defined by scandal and indecision.”

Few, however, expect Hata to blaze new trails. He has held the critical posts of ministers of finance, foreign affairs and agriculture during his 24-year political career, making him one of the most experienced leaders in the coalition. But no one can recall any distinctive “Hata color” he gave to his jobs.

Describing his reputation among Japanese politicians, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun said: “His enemies are few, but he is an eight-sided beauty with no core beliefs"--an expression for a person who tries to please everyone.

His chief role may be to hold the shaky coalition together until its competing factions begin to sort themselves out after the next general election. Despite his social charms, however, some analysts predict that the coalition won’t last even that long and may yet fall apart within weeks, dooming a Hata Administration to one of the shortest in history.

Analysts say Hata has two formidable factors in his favor: the backing of the nation’s powerful bureaucrats and the mass media.

Although many of the mandarins became openly derisive of Hosokawa’s inexperience as time went on, a growing number are persuaded that they need to help the Hata Cabinet succeed, political commentator Minoru Morita said.

“Increasingly, many more officials of the central government believe that in order to stop Japan’s credibility from falling further, we should avoid at all costs another change of government,” Morita said.

Hata enjoys good press mainly because he takes the time to talk to reporters in clear language.

At an appearance before foreign correspondents in August, he made headlines by saying Japan owed Asia an apology for World War II rather than the usual diplomatic equivocation of expressions of “regret.” He also said the government should apologize to victims of the atomic bomb and other war victims. His comments preceded Hosokawa’s widely reported apology for Japan’s waging of a “war of aggression.”

Propped up on policy by Ozawa and the bureaucrats, analysts say, Hata is likely to aim his public speaking skills at forming a national consensus on two of Japan’s hottest issues: North Korea’s nuclear threat, and tax policy, including a consumption tax hike to finance an income tax cut.

He also wants to correct the image of Japan as a “nation with no face,” by saying yes and no clearly and conveying a sense of Japan’s direction to the world, said his wife, Yasuko, in an interview.

Unlike recent prime ministers--the scholarly Kiichi Miyazawa, the aristocratic Hosokawa--Hata is known for using the plain language of the people. One of his mottoes, hanging in his office, is that “Politics is connected to plain language.”

Hata was born Aug. 24, 1935, the oldest of four sons in a family of politicians in Nagano prefecture, a region of breathtaking natural beauty, high educational achievement and new social trends two hours by train from Tokyo.

But his grass-roots bona fides were established during a decade as a grunt for the Odakyu Bus Co. in Tokyo, where he started out as a ticket puncher and ended up as a tour planner.

No whiz kid, he had gotten the job through his father’s connections after being first rejected by the Asahi and Nihon Keizai newspapers. He moved to tour planning from accounting partly because, despite earning a degree in economics, he was weak at calculations.

But he was always popular. He was a ringleader of groups ranging from noodle-eating clubs to a student bank. Friends called him a “carrier pigeon” because he constantly shuttled around visiting friends.

He was drafted into politics reluctantly when his father died, and he won his first lower house election in 1969. After a long political career allied with Tanaka and former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, he broke away from the LDP last year with Ozawa and 42 other members to form the Japan Renewal Party. Their defection led to the end of the LDP’s 38-year iron-clad rule.

Hata, however, never forgot his roots. Unlike the Armani ties and custom-made suits sported by Hosokawa, his clothes are no-name, off-the-rack. His wife says he socializes little with other politicians, preferring instead a night of sake and noodles at inexpensive joints with good friends from his bus company days. Or he attends concerts with such pals as conductor Seiji Ozawa, a fellow graduate of Seijo University in Tokyo.

Unusual for a Japanese politician, Hata and his wife, whom he met in college, frequently socialize as a couple. After graduation, he insisted that she and their children live with him in Tokyo rather than stay in the local district, as is the common practice, because he saw how his father’s political career had disrupted his own family life. Yasaku Hata says he discusses virtually all political issues with her, soliciting her opinion.

He has maintained such a normal life that “there really hasn’t been any difference” in shifting from a bus company wife to a political one, she said.

That normality and reliance on persuasion “would give him the qualities needed to be a leader at a time of peace,” the analyst Morita said. “But I harbor certain doubts about whether or not he can lead in times of confusion.”

Chiaki Kitada of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.


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