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In Japan’s Leadership Derby, Spicy and Bland Are Neck and Neck

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The contest for the top post in the world’s No. 2 economy may come to a choice between bland and spicy.

Keizo Obuchi, a leading candidate to become Japan’s next prime minister, is an insider known as a consummate conciliator. Seiroku Kajiyama, the other favorite, is a far more colorful reformer whose aggressive, outspoken ways have earned him plenty of enemies.

Both are mandarins in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party--yes, the same party that Japanese voters sent a rousing Bronx cheer to in Sunday’s elections for the upper house of parliament.

The LDP, in what amounted to a huge referendum on his rule, lost 17 of its 61 seats in the legislative chamber, a rout that prompted the resignation of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. The party still retains the right to nominate the prime minister because of its majority in the all-important lower house, which actually names Japan’s leader.

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If the LDP wants to maintain the status quo, the choice is likely to be Obuchi, 61, the foreign minister, who leads the party’s largest faction.

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Obuchi is said to have honed his skills in compromise by jockeying for recognition most of his career with Yasuhiro Nakasone and Takeo Fukuda--two nationally known LDP leaders from the same district.

“He was always the third from that district and always feared losing between the two big names,” said Takashi Kiuchi, research director of the Long Term Credit Bank of Japan Ltd. “Somehow he succeeded in not being hated by the opposition.”

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He may be good at striking compromises within the party, but Obuchi is unpopular with Japan’s power-wielding bureaucracy. “He is the barren flower who was raised in the typical Japanese climate; he doesn’t have any leadership at all,” said one official in Kasumigaseki, Japan’s government district.

Nor does he get a rousing endorsement from financial analysts. “It will be something of a negative if Obuchi is just occupying space because it’s his turn,” said Chris Calderwood, chief economist at Jardine Fleming Securities Asia Ltd.

Kajiyama, 72, a former chief Cabinet secretary, is viewed as more likely to shake things up. He is said to have proposed plans for banking and financial sector reforms long before the party leadership adopted them, and he also has called for the permanent tax cuts that experts say are needed to stimulate Japan’s lethargic economy.

As a teenager, Kajiyama attended an elite military academy just before World War II. When Japan was defeated, it “twisted his career, so he went to the private sector and never had a chance to be a mainstream bureaucrat,” one of the individuals who are considered the elite in this country, said Kiuchi. “He is a man thinking seriously about the future of the nation, but not an absurd nationalist.”

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Hiroshi Yamamura, senior researcher at NLI Research Institute, said someone with the courage to take unpopular stands is precisely what Japan needs. “Although Kajiyama is like a ghost from the military era, we don’t need a friendly politician who will try to make everybody happy,” he said. “You have to be ready to be hated and to get stabbed in the back.”

But there also are questions about Kajiyama’s racial tolerance. In September 1990, after a police roundup of foreign prostitutes in Tokyo, then-Justice Minister Kajiyama said: “They [prostitutes] ruin the atmosphere of the neighborhoods they move into . . . just like in America, where blacks move in and whites are forced out.” He later apologized to the American people for the comments.

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The LDP could go further afield in seeking a fresher face. One possibility is former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, a member of the House of Representatives, who did groundwork for the latest proposed “bridge bank” plan to help borrowers whose banks default.

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But he is 78, has a controversial past and may be considered too old for the job.

Another possibility is Yohei Kono, 60, a former LDP president and onetime foreign minister.

Some are calling for the party to tap some of its younger members to offset the popularity of Naoto Kan, the youthful leader of the Democratic Party of Japan.

Among the possibilities are Junichiro Koizumi, the comparatively youthful 55-year-old health and welfare minister. Koizumi should be a favored choice, argues Pelham Smithers at ING Barings Securities Japan Ltd. in Tokyo, who describes him as “comfortable with foreigners.” That is crucial, he said, since one of the key questions for those involved in global financial markets is “what happens now to U.S.-Japan economic relations.”

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It is unclear exactly how the LDP will go about making its choice. The party was reported to be divided on the method.

Some said the party should shun the traditional horse-trading in smoke-filled back rooms in favor of a more open, public debate over who could best lead Japan. But others argued that the economic crisis leaves no room for the time-consuming considerations required in ideal democratic conduct and that a new leader should be chosen as soon as possible to get Japanese reforms moving swiftly.

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On Japanese streets and airwaves Monday, ordinary voters and political analysts shared a yearning for a strong leader of the kind that helped lift Japan out of poverty after World War II and transformed it into an economic superpower.

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Japan has experienced a revolving door with prime ministers in recent years: Hashimoto’s tenure lasted just 2 1/2 years but still was the sixth longest since World War II.

The name most often mentioned as an idol for those in the strongman school is Kakuei Tanaka. He is the late LDP prime minister credited with propelling Japan out of postwar poverty. He was a champion of pork-barrel politics, funneling a huge number of public works projects to his home district. He was eventually convicted of corruption.

The Tanaka nostalgia seems to be shared even by voters who say they are fed up with the cozy ties between businesses, politicians and bureaucrats that he helped forge.

“I wish someone like Tanaka or Hayato Ikeda [another favorite postwar prime minister] would appear in this era, someone who could lead,” said Yoshihide Yoshida, 45, a pharmacist. “Our former prime ministers had dignity.”

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The Leading Contenders

Profiles of two of the top candidates to replace Japanese Prime Minister Ryhutaro Hashimoto:

KEIZO OBUCHI

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Age: 61

Education: Waseda University in Tokyo.

Political career: Elected to House of Representatives, 1963; deputy director-general in the prime minister’s office, 1973; Liberal Democratic Party’s deputy secretary-general, 1984; chief Cabinet secretary, 1987; foreign affairs minister, 1997.

Personal: Wife, Chizuko. They have two daughters and a son.

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SEIROKU KAJIYAMA

Age: 72

Education: Nihon University in Tokyo.

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Political career: Elected to House of Representatives, 1969; deputy chief Cabinet secretary, 1974; parliament vice minister for international trade and industry, 1979; minister of home affairs, 1987-88; minister of trade and industry, 1989; chief Cabinet secretary, 1996-97.

Personal: Wife, Harue. They have a daughter and a son.

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Makiko Inoue of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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