No. 21 — May 26, 2000


Weekly Review

--- by Barbara Wanner

The May 14 death of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, six weeks after an incapacitating stroke (see JEI Report No. 14B, April 7, 2000), was not completely unexpected. Nevertheless, it cast a pall over Japan. Coming in the wake of the announced retirements of former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and Liberal Democratic Party doyen Seiroku Kajiyama, among other party strategists, Mr. Obuchi's passing seemed to signal a major political transition. The generation that had governed Japan during its rise from postwar devastation to global economic power largely has moved on, making room for a new group of leaders. These elected officials must guide the nation in today's fast-paced, technology-driven world — a challenge that, according to some experts, the "old way" of politics cannot meet.

Of course, such criticism was not heard at the private funeral for Mr. Obuchi, held May 16. A select group of political friends — and foes — extended their sympathies to the former prime minister's family as well as expressed appreciation for his achievements. Although not a flashy or a charismatic leader, Mr. Obuchi was remembered by his colleagues for his steadfast commitment to the nation's economic recovery and for his efforts to ensure a successful July 21-23 summit on Okinawa of the leaders of the Group of Seven industrial nations plus Russia.

The respectful atmosphere that prevailed at the service was quickly dispelled, however, by the political storm set off by remarks Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori had made May 15. Speaking to a nationalistic group of LDP lawmakers, Mr. Mori described Japan as a "divine nation centering on the emperor." This statement outraged the opposition — and even members of the Mori cabinet — since it seemed to dismiss the postwar constitutional separation of church and state while venerating the belief held by Japan's pre-1945 militarist government to justify its brutal conquest of Asia.

As if the prime minister's words were not sufficient in and of themselves to stir controversy, Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki's announcement the same day that Mr. Obuchi's state funeral would be held June 8 added fuel to the fire. Government officials had made it known that they wanted to hold the state funeral soon after the return of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko from their May 20-June 1 tour of Europe. However, the timing of the event came across as a blatant and shameless attempt to win support in the upcoming lower house elections for the ruling LDP and its two governing partners by playing on voters' sympathies for the deceased prime minister. For some time, political experts had speculated that these elections would be held June 25, putting them less than three weeks after the state funeral. Mr. Mori formally confirmed May 18 that voters indeed would go to the polls June 25.

The fact that the elections were called for the same day as Mr. Obuchi's birthday seemed to reinforce the opinion of many pundits that the triparty government placed political expediency above principle. A spate of Japanese newspaper editorials condemned the tactic and urged voters to consider thoughtfully the policies put forth by both the ruling and the opposition parties for dealing with the nation's economic problems and social-welfare challenges.

Mr. Mori apologized to the Diet for his comments May 17, insisting that he never meant to deify the emperor. The monarch remains a symbol of the nation as stipulated in the constitution, he added. The prime minister also emphasized his firm commitment to the principles that sovereignty rests with the people and that individuals are free to pursue whatever religious paths they choose.

In what was viewed as further evidence of his potential as a loose cannon, however, Mr. Mori refused to retract his comments. This defiance has only fueled the opposition's efforts to discredit the prime minister and remove him from office through a no-confidence vote. The nonruling parties also are challenging the closed-door LDP process that led to Mr. Mori's elevation to the nation's highest office in the first place.

Yukio Hatoyama, the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition group, reacted immediately to Mr. Mori's "divine nation" statement, demanding the prime minister's resignation on the grounds that his "character makes him unsuitable to lead the country." The four major opposition parties (see Table) agreed May 17 to team up in an effort to force Mr. Mori from office with a vote of no-confidence. Mr. Hatoyama apparently hopes that he can co-opt enough support from disgruntled members of the LDP and the Buddhist-backed New Komeito to make the premier step down. "The ['divine nation'] remark was [the vocalization of] an idea that seeps out from deep inside the prime minister," Mr. Hatoyama charged. "This can't be resolved just by asking for a withdrawal [of the comment]," he told reporters.

Party Membership in the Diet, May 19, 2000



Ruling Parties

Liberal Democratic Party



New Komeito



New Conservative Party



Opposition Parties

Democratic Party of Japan



Japan Communist Party



Social Democratic Party of Japan



Liberal Party



Independents/Minor Parties









Source: Kyodo News Wire Service, May 19, 2000.

This salvo followed the DPJ's May 9 assault on the Mori government. The largest opposition party filed a criminal complaint against Mr. Aoki, alleging that he had acted illegally in assuming the role of acting prime minister and then shifting power to Mr. Mori shortly after Mr. Obuchi's hospitalization. The government's principal spokesperson has said that he submitted a notice to Lower House Speaker Soichiro Ito that he would serve as acting prime minister effective April 3 based on a conversation with the then-bedridden but conscious Mr. Obuchi. Two days later, party lawmakers formally elected Mr. Mori LDP president; the Diet's lower house subsequently made him prime minister. In reality, though, the LDP's number two had been handpicked by fellow chieftains through the time-honored LDP dealmaking process typically associated with smoky back rooms and closed doors (see JEI Report No. 15B, April 14, 2000).

Interviews after Mr. Obuchi's death with the doctors who had treated him have raised serious questions about Mr. Aoki's claim to have consulted with the former premier about the transfer of power. "Mr. Obuchi was not clearly as conscious as ordinary people, and it was probably difficult [for him] to clearly utter a long sentence," according to the neurologist charged with the former prime minister's care. The doctor added that he had been a "little surprised" at Mr. Aoki's assertion that Mr. Obuchi had said from his hospital bed, "[t]here is concern over the eruption of [Hokkaido's] Mount Usu. In case something should happen to me, please make sure that everything is right." Mr. Aoki has insisted that there "was nothing illegal" about his role in the shift of authority.

With pressure building both for Mr. Aoki's resignation and for Mr. Mori's ouster, the three ruling parties are attempting to present a united front for the upcoming polls. The LDP and its partners, the New Komeito and the Conservative Party, agreed May 19, the day after the elections were formally called, on a common campaign platform that entails continuing the public works projects outlined in the FY 2000 budget (see JEI Report No. 13B, March 31, 2000) and creating some 350,000 jobs in the health services area and in other growth industries (see following article).

LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Shizuka Kamei underscored the significance of this plan, pointing out that the parties in power at the time of the 1996 lower house elections — the LDP, the Social Democratic Party of Japan and the New Sakigake Party — had not drawn up a unified platform, due largely to their philosophical differences. The decision of the leftist SDPJ and the left-of-center NSP to formally part ways with their conservative ruling partner the following year (but to remain LDP parliamentary allies) was all but inevitable, Mr. Kamei suggested. Now, however, the LDP, the New Komeito and the Conservative Party " want to give a message that [they] formed a coalition because [they] have common policies, not because [they] needed to form a majority in the Diet," he maintained. The LDP's October 1999 move to bring the centrist New Komeito into the governing fold has been roundly criticized as motivated by the ruling party's overwhelming desire to dominate both Diet chambers (see JEI Report No. 39B, October 15, 1999).

Remarkably, pundits do not think that the uproar caused by Mr. Mori's remarks, the orchestration of his succession by Mr. Aoki or the LDP's apparent attempt to capitalize on popular sentiment for Mr. Obuchi will hurt the ruling coalition so badly that the three parties will lose control of the important lower house. Admittedly, this optimistic assessment has more to do with the political opposition's shortcomings than with grass-roots support for the powers-that-be. Experts maintain that because the opposition parties have failed to present a well-conceived policy and leadership alternative to the triparty government, voters do not feel that they have any better choices.

A sharp rebuke at the ballot box — such as the one issued by voters in the July 1998 upper house polls (see JEI Report No. 28A, July 24, 1998) — cannot be ruled out entirely, however. Mid-May surveys by two major dailies, Mainichi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun, indicate that public disapproval of the Mori government has soared to 54 percent, up as much as 30 percentage points from polls conducted in April. Should these sentiments prevail June 25, Mr. Mori undoubtedly will find that he is out of a job, even without the efforts of the opposition parties to push him aside.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

*** JEI Report will not be published June 2, 2000 because of the Memorial Day holiday. ***
*** The Next Issue will be dated June 9, 2000 ***

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