Japan Resignation Leads to Frenzied Speculation


Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who triggered a political furor by abruptly resigning along with his Cabinet, said Friday that he did his best in a 555-day tenure plagued by disasters and crises.

Showing vigor and confidence, Murayama, 71, also said in a news conference that pressing economic problems and a critical visit by President Clinton scheduled for April preclude dissolving the Parliament and calling a snap general election--as major business leaders and opposition parties are urging.

“This is no time for a general election,” said the Socialist premier, whose administration, launched in June 1994, lasted longer than anyone expected.


Just one week into the new Fiery Year of the Rat--the Chinese lunar calendar year known for political upheaval--Murayama’s resignation set off frenzied speculation over whether another major realignment might be in the offing as parties face critical elections this year.

The elections will be the first under new rules creating single-seat districts--and eventually, it is hoped, a two-party system to inject greater policy debate and accountability into Japan’s fuzzy political culture.

The three ruling coalition members--Socialists, Liberal Democrats and New Party Harbinger--reaffirmed their alliance. But the emergence of a leftist challenger to Murayama--American-educated Tadatoshi Akiba, a mathematician--and speculation that part of the opposition New Frontier Party could splinter off to join either the Socialists or the Liberal Democrats raised questions over how much longer the coalition can last.

Murayama also affirmed that he will run for Socialist Party president despite a marked drop in support exacerbated by his visit this week to Ise Shrine--a symbol of the imperial family that has long been taboo for Socialists.


Akiba, who came of age during the 1960s student demonstrations against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, has declared that he intends to steer the Socialists back to their original pacifist principles, abandoned when they joined hands with the conservative Liberal Democrats.

Despite a frenetic round of meetings Friday, Murayama declined to name a successor, although International Trade Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto is considered a shoo-in. Hashimoto--suave, smart and tough-talking--remained tight-lipped about his intentions.


But Hashimoto told reporters that the new Cabinet’s top priority will be U.S.-Japan relations, particularly resolving conflicts over U.S. military bases on the southern island of Okinawa. The long-standing conflict was recently fanned by the rape of a schoolgirl there, allegedly by U.S. servicemen.

A new prime minister is scheduled to be elected in a special parliamentary session Thursday.

Despite Murayama’s self-assessment that he has played a “historical role” in Japan’s development, most people interviewed applauded his departure and called for more dynamic political leadership to lift the nation from economic recession and social malaise. The stock market inched higher, reflecting hopes that Hashimoto would usher in more effective stimulus measures.

On the streets of Otemachi, Tokyo’s financial district, men in business suits and Burberry raincoats gathered to snatch copies of free extras handed out by newspaper delivery staff in neon-green jackets. On elevators and sidewalks, people hung over others’ shoulders to scan the startling news.

“I wanted him to resign,” said Fumiyaki Shibata, a driver. “He had no policy offensive. He can’t pull the coalition together or organize priorities.”


Businessman Minoru Oba said Hashimoto would provide the clear leadership that Murayama has sorely lacked.


“Murayama doesn’t understand anything about politics and economics, so he relies completely on the bureaucrats,” he said. “We need someone who will define which direction Japan will go in the 21st century.”

Others, however, expressed deep skepticism toward all politicians.

“I don’t have any expectations from the Japanese government,” said Tetsuo Nishimura, a bank employee. “The government can’t give me money or a cute woman, and that’s what I really want.”

Murayama defended his tenure in a news conference. Despite harsh criticism that he bungled crisis management of the Kobe earthquake last January, Murayama told reporters that an emergency response system has been firmly established. He also said the government had done its best to deal with a poison-gas attack on Tokyo’s subways, the yen’s appreciation, the Okinawa rape incident and recent leakage at the Monju nuclear power plant.

But now that he has played a “historical role” in shepherding Japan past the 50-year anniversary of the end of World War II--including winning compensation for atomic bomb victims and establishing a fund for women forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers--Murayama said it is time to step down.

“With the new year, we can renew our staff and the Japanese economy.”

Times staff writer Hillary E. MacGregor and Chiaki Kitada of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.