Ryutaro Hashimoto, a hawkish Cabinet minister who gave Americans a sharp taste of his hard-line views on trade during the most recent round of contentious automobile talks, got a major boost Monday toward Japan’s top job when his chief competitor pulled out of the race.
Foreign Minister Yohei Kono stunned the Japanese political world by announcing he will not seek reelection as president of Japan’s largest political party.
Kono, a 58-year-old dove, effectively removed himself as the leading candidate for Japan’s next prime minister and handed over leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party to Hashimoto, also 58.
The move could weaken the three-party coalition government of the Liberal Democrats, the Socialists of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and the New Party Harbinger.
Hashimoto, the minister of international trade and industry, won acclaim in Japan by refusing to yield to American demands for numerical goals in an auto trade agreement that ended two years of bilateral negotiations in late June.
He heads the Japan War Bereaved Families Assn. as well as a league of legislators devoted to paying respects to the war dead at Yasukuni Shinto shrine, where 14 war criminals are enshrined.
Although Hashimoto has expressed regrets for “portions” of Japan’s actions against Korea and China that he called “aggression-like,” he also has insisted that Japan never committed aggression against the United States, Britain, France or the Netherlands, all of which maintained colonies in Asia. Japan, he wrote in a 1994 book, “How to Regain Control of the Government,” was fighting to free Asians from colonialism.
His viewpoint directly contradicts an apology that Prime Minister Murayama offered Aug. 15--the 50th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II--for Japan’s aggression and colonialism before and during the war.
On Monday, Hashimoto confined his comments to expressing astonishment over Kono’s withdrawal.
Murayama, elected by Parliament as prime minister, can remain in office until at least the next lower house election. Political pundits now predict that the long-awaited vote may be held after the 1996 budget is enacted in spring.
A majority of the Liberal Democrats, who ruled Japan by themselves from 1955 to 1993, favor Hashimoto as a charismatic leader who would serve as a good “face” for the party in trying to win back a majority in the lower house.
If they are successful, they could elect Hashimoto prime minister. Should Murayama volunteer to resign before then, Hashimoto could take over as prime minister if the Socialists remain in the tripartite coalition.
In June, 1994, Kono persuaded the Liberal Democrats to support Murayama--leader of the Socialists, the Liberal Democrats’ principal rival--as prime minister in a move that brought the perennial ruling group back into the government after a year out of power.
In a news conference Monday, the affable foreign minister, who once walked out of the Liberal Democratic Party to protest its corruption, acknowledged that “many voices within the party have emerged questioning my leadership.” Those criticisms arose after the party received fewer votes in an upper house election in July than its new conservative opposition rival, the New Frontier Party.
“Although I wanted to continue striving toward the goals I set two years ago when I became party president--political reform, party reform and restoration of a Liberal Democrat government--I decided that, at a time of great national difficulty, the party should not tear itself apart,” said Kono, whose two-year term as party president expires in late September.
Kono said he will abide by whatever decision Murayama makes on retaining him as foreign minister and deputy prime minister. Cornered by Japanese reporters, Murayama refused to comment.
Koken Nosaka, chief Cabinet secretary, said he was astonished by the “sudden development” but that he expects Kono to stay as foreign minister.
Nosaka noted that Hashimoto, in declaring his candidacy Aug. 21, had promised to support the Murayama coalition. “Therefore, there will be no change in the ‘dove government’ ” under Murayama, he said, although that appeared unlikely.
Without the accommodating Kono guiding the biggest part of the coalition, Murayama’s shaky rule is expected to be weakened even further.
Polls by mass media already had predicted that Hashimoto would outstrip Kono 3-to-1 in the Liberal Democrats’ election in September, and within hours of Kono’s announcement, commentators started speculating about new party officers under Hashimoto.