Japan’s New Prime Minister: Keizo Obuchi
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PHIL PONCE: Japan’s ruling party chose a new leader today to become the next prime minister. Members of the Liberal Democratic Party elected Japan’s Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi to be the party’s new head. That all but guarantees his elevation to prime minister. Obuchi beat out two other candidates in what was one of the most public election campaigns in Japanese history. Candidates campaigned all over Japan, appeared on television, and even took part in an American-style debate. Obuchi’s elevation comes two weeks after Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto announced he was stepping down. That was prompted by their party’s poor showing in elections for control of Japan’s upper house of parliament. The new prime minister will face a country in its worst recession since World War II. The unemployment rate’s at an all-time high, bankruptcies keep rising, and banks are saddled with an estimated $600 billion in bad loans. Calls for reform are coming from inside Japan and from world leaders. Mr. Obuchi told reporters fixing the economy was his top priority.
KEIZO OBUCHI: (speaking through interpreter) The initial issue we have to deal with is reconstruction of the Japanese economy. We have to take our responsibility for international society by tackling this issue.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Obuchi will officially be voted into office by parliament next week.
We get two views now: Former Vice President Walter Mondale was Ambassador to Japan during President Clinton’s first term. Yoshihisa Komori has covered Japanese politics and is editor-at-large for Sankei Shimbun, one of Japan’s major national daily newspapers. And, gentlemen, welcome to both of you. Mr. Mondale, how much contact did you have with Mr. Obuchi while you were in Japan?
WALTER MONDALE: Well, I got to know him quite well. He was, I think, Vice President of the LDP Party, the majority party in the lower house, and was one of the principal leaders. And because of that, I got to know him quite well.
PHIL PONCE: And, Mr. Mondale, how would you describe him?
WALTER MONDALE: Well, he is a person who is very skilled at dealing with all the elements of his parliamentary group. He’s soft spoken. On the other hand, I think he may prove to be the person who can best get this job done. And so I’m hopeful that those skills about which his abilities are legendary will prove to be exactly what’s needed.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Komori, how would you describe Mr. Obuchi’s skills and talents?
YOSHIHISA KOMORI: It’s true that he has been very skillful in dealing with this old-style factional political matters. But given the extent of the Japanese economic recession and the financial woes, Japan clearly needs leadership that is decisive, bold, and creative. And I don’t think Mr. Obuchi has any of those qualities. And I think the way Mr. Obuchi came to be elected clearly shows that the Obuchi government would be the Hashimoto government without Mr. Hashimoto. He will be remaining captive of the traditional sort of factional politics.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Mondale, would he remain a captive to politics as usual?
WALTER MONDALE: No. I hope it’ll be different, and I think that’s the spirit of what’s happening here. The election, which clearly expressed unrest on the part of the body politic, the campaign, which was unique that led up to the selection of the new prime minister, all of them centered on the importance of getting economic reform. I agree that he is not someone who is recognized as a leader in economic affairs. But I think the nature of this issue is so important to him, to his government, to the LDP party and, above all, to the nation, there’s such a consensus that’s found in Japan about the need for progress, that I think his skills, coupled with that consensus, could bring about the changes that are needed: Deep permanent tax cuts, reform of their banking system, and deregulation of many parts of the economy. I’m hopeful that he will provide that leadership.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Komori, do you think he’s up to the job of implementing those tax cuts and reforming the banking system?
YOSHIHISA KOMORI: Well, clearly he-that’s what he indicated as his top priority, and having been a very shrewd politician all his adult life, I’m sure that Mr. Obuchi is more than fully aware of the urgent need of carrying out those reforms. But, on the other hand, still fact remains that he was elected by the core of the old LDP elder-elderly leaders, who thrive still, unfortunately, on the vested interest and sort of status quo and money politics. It is also true that this election process has been more open than ever before and more transparent and is subject to the public scrutiny to the unprecedented degree. And that’s really a welcome and hopeful sign for the future of Japanese politics. However, all the public opinion polls conducted during this election process demonstrated that Mr. Obuchi is the least popular figure of the three among the Japanese public. So what this means is that there’s a deep gap between what the public wants in Japan now and what LDP’s long-standing, old factional politics dictates. And I hope that Mr. Obuchi will be driven into the corner where he has to finally sort of come out of the mold and address the real issues in a way that the Japanese public eagerly, eagerly wants him to address.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Mondale, how about that, among the Japanese public, as Mr. Komori said, is he’s the least popular of the three candidates in contention-will that make it harder for him to implement the reforms you were talking about?
WALTER MONDALE: It is true that the polls indicated that, but what we have here is not a presidential system where the popularity of the leader is so important but a parliamentary system where the ability of the leader to make that parliament work is the supreme requirement. I’m hoping that Mr. Obuchi will be able to do this, and I think there’s tremendous pressure on him, on his government. I think the people of Japan are beginning to feel the ache of this severe economic situation. The whole world is calling for reform. They know it. They’re being tested. There could be an election within a year or so, and the LDP must prove that they can fix this economy. And for all those reasons I think it won’t be politics as usual. I think you’re going to find a different level of commitment by this government-at least that’s my hope.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Komori, tell us a little bit about Mr. Obuchi’s background. Where did he come from? What’s he done before?
YOSHIHISA KOMORI: Well, I hope that I didn’t-I didn’t sound like I was casting any aspersions on Mr. Obuchi’s character. I mean, he’s known as a man of integrity, honesty, and modesty. And I think he’s warm and kind, willing to listen to people, and extremely good at relating to people. And one incident-anecdote I can provide you with is that when he first came to Washington as the foreign minister last year, one of the first things he wanted to do was find an aging Japanese-American lady who is the widow of our Sankei Shimbun’s Washington correspondent.
PHIL PONCE: One of your colleague’s widow.
YOSHIHISA KOMORI: Right. Thirty-five years ago. And this person, Mr. Sakai, became somewhat of a mentor, American mentor for young Mr. Obuchi, who’s still in graduate school. And Mr. Sakai, himself, is long since gone, yet, Mr. Obuchi wanted to find the well-being of the Mrs. Sakai and wanted to thank her for all those kindnesses that her late husband showed him.
PHIL PONCE: So what does that story tell you?
YOSHIHISA KOMORI: Well, again, he’s a nice person, warm person, but I wish that he would have attached more importance to more foreign policy matters as the foreign minister being in Washington.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Mondale, do you have any story about Mr. Obuchi that makes him stand out one way or the other?
WALTER MONDALE: No. I don’t. The one thing I would add to the discussion, though, is that there’s one other step that’s important here that has not yet been taken, and that is what choices does Mr. Obuchi make to occupy the key ministries that deal with economics particularly the new minister of finance, who will be crucial to the ability of this new government to get moving. And I think there will be special care paid toward that. And if he puts strong people in those positions, I think that will be additional reason to be encouraged.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Komori, how about that, is it pretty key as to who he puts into those key positions?
YOSHIHISA KOMORI: That’s true. One of the things he pledged to do as prime minister is recruit some people, some talented people from the private sector, which would be very, very unusual. And I think, as Mr. Mondale was saying, the minister of finance would be sort of a top position for that, someone from the private sector. But, again, I hope that given the way the election process went on, he had to rely a lot on old mechanics of factional politics, which means that he’s going to have to repay the debt that he incurred from factional leaders. What it means is that he will have to bring in representative of each major faction. Incidentally, there are four major factions within LDP, including his own. And so he has to bring in those-some leaders from three different factions. I hope that this composition will not mean that politics as usual.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Komori, Mr. Mondale, thank you both very much.