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For U.S., Hashimoto Defeat Adds to Uncertainty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto’s defeat in weekend elections injects new uncertainty into the relationship between the United States and Japan just as the Clinton administration was hoping for decisive leadership in Tokyo to turn the Japanese economy around.

In recent days, the administration had been laying plans to give a lavish reception to Hashimoto on a state visit to Washington scheduled for July 22. The aim had been to show that the U.S. alliance with Japan remains solid even as the administration improves its ties with China.

But U.S. plans for Hashimoto unraveled after the premier resigned today and said in a news conference that it would be inappropriate for him to follow through with the trip.

On Sunday, as it became apparent that Hashimoto’s party had won far fewer seats than it needed to maintain the status quo in parliament’s upper chamber, U.S. officials had already begun to shift ground.

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Officially, the administration had no comment. “We have not changed any plans at this point,” a White House spokesman said Sunday, before the resignation.

But privately, administration officials were voicing the hope that Hashimoto would step down so that President Clinton could welcome a new prime minister to the White House next week.

“If they get a new person in place quickly, as their system has the capability to do, what better time to come?” said one senior official. “On the other hand, if they have a lame duck [Hashimoto], what worse time to come?”

Another U.S. government expert predicted that Tokyo will come up with a new prime minister to meet with Clinton--but that the choice will not stay in office long. “They’ll come with a crash-bang, four- or five-month caretaker,” he said. “We’ve seen that happen before.”

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It was not clear when a successor to Hashimoto might be chosen.

Administration officials acknowledged that they were unsure whether the election results will help or hinder their continuing efforts to persuade Japan to stimulate its economy, which shrank at an annual rate of 5% in the first three months of 1998.

The administration believes that the Asian financial crisis will not ease until Japan’s economy, the world’s second largest, is revived.

One U.S. official said Sunday that the results vindicated what Washington had been telling Hashimoto and his government for months.

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“All along, we’ve been saying it is counterintuitive that running a lousy economy, in the midst of a recession, can be good politics,” this official said, adding, “If the result is a wake-up call, that’s good news.”

Nevertheless, U.S. officials said they could not be sure whether any government that succeeded Hashimoto’s would be more willing or able to open the way for greater economic growth. A coalition government could well be weaker than Hashimoto’s.

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As usual, some outside scholars said they were skeptical that the election results will make much difference for government policy.

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“How pitiful it is that Americans continue to believe that these elections make a difference,” said Chalmers Johnson of the Japan Policy Research Institute, the author of several books on Japan. “This is a single-party system rigged by the CIA 30 years ago,” when the agency provided financial support to members of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party during the Cold War.

The Japanese election, Johnson said, “means only changes in personality. Hashimoto was a Japanese version of Clinton, doing a high-wire act. Now we’ll go back to the old LDP mastodons. . . .

“Even [Treasury Secretary Robert E.] Rubin and [Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence H.] Summers have begun to recognize” that Japan is ruled not by its prime minister but by the bureaucrats in its financial ministries, Johnson added.

Only 10 days ago, Clinton passed up a chance to stop over in Tokyo--and, perhaps, give a boost to Hashimoto’s election prospects--when he flew directly home to Washington after his nine-day visit to China.

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Officials in Beijing had urged Clinton not to visit any other Asian country besides China during that trip because they wanted his visit to underscore their country’s special importance to the United States.

When the president went along with that request, U.S. officials pointed to the plans for Hashimoto’s postelection visit to Washington as proof that the United States was not favoring China over Japan.

Clinton’s decision may have hurt Hashimoto a bit, one U.S. official speculated Sunday. “In a period with a weak government, with weak economic performance, any perceived slight [to Japan] is greater,” he said.


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