Hosokawa's Popularity Drops After Tax Furor

TOKYO -- He is the "War Criminal of the 7 Percent Tax," one magazine blared. An "Alien Prime Minister" masquerading as Mr. Clean who actually gives and takes sweetheart deals to favored companies, trumpeted another.

He uses "Hitler-like tactics" and back-room bargaining despite pledges to usher in a new era of open government. And, in one poll, his public support had plunged a whopping 37 percent in the last week.

Can this be Morihiro Hosokawa, Japan's fresh-faced prime minister who was supposed to be an agent of change and voice for reform? Is this the man blessed with public approval ratings in the 70 percent range, despite taking controversial action to open Japan's rice market, squarely apologize for the nation's wartime misdeeds and tackle the touchy issue of political reform?

As Hosokawa met President Bill Clinton on Friday, it was clear his public standing had, at least temporarily, taken a steep dive. This month's political snafu, in which he abruptly announced a new 7 percent tax increase, then was forced to renounce it by the ensuing public uproar, shook public trust and prompted a stream of unflattering headlines.

"The honeymoon between Mr. Hosokawa and the public is ending," said Seizaburo Sato, a Tokyo University professor emeritus affiliated with a think-tank established by the former prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, of the Liberal Democratic Party.

"Most Americans have too rosy a picture of his abilities. He looks young and fresh. But he is not so talented or smart. He lacks experience. And his political base is weak, so he's an easy target to be manipulated by the bureaucrats."

Not that the redoubtable Hosokawa cannot spring back. His ratings, ranging from 52 percent to 59 percent, may be his lowest. But that is still higher than past prime ministers enjoyed: The popular Toshiko Kaifu drew an average 48 percent; Noboru Takeshita's plunged to 3 percent just before his resignation in the money-for-stocks Recruit scandal.

With his telegenic appeal and aristocratic elegance, Hosokawa has somehow weathered not only policy snafus, but also negative coverage of his "women problem" and alleged sweetheart deals with the Seibu group and the gangster-linked Sagawa Kyubin transport company.

"His administration has proven more resilient than most people anticipated," said Kumiko Inoguchi, a political science professor at Tokyo's Sophia University. Although Hosokawa pledged to curtail the power of the bureaucrats when he became prime minister last August, in fact, say many analysts, they have become stronger, because the inexperienced coalition government has had to rely more on their expertise

And is Hosokawa -- or his seven-party coalition -- likely to be in power beyond the year? Perhaps not. As Yomiuri newspaper political editor Shoichi Oikawa put it: "The critical point is not whether the (tax) affair will undermine his popularity. What matters most is that it has caused a deep crack in his political power base."