Japan Sticks to Obuchi

TOKYO -- When Keizo Obuchi came into office a year ago, few gave this plain-vanilla politician, whom the media called a political hack, much chance of success. Japan's eighth prime minister of the decade led a patchwork coalition that seemed little more than a formula for legislative gridlock. And with the nation's economy all but in the tank, Obuchi seemed destined for an inglorious - and embarrassingly brief - prime ministership.

What a difference a year has made for this career politician.

Japan's economy is finally starting to show signs of life, Obuchi's public approval ratings hover around 50 percent or more - high marks indeed, given Japan's faction-ridden politics - and he is the odds-on favorite to win re-election in the current contest for leadership of the nation's ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Suddenly in Japan - a culture of exotic tastes and continual political strife - plain vanilla, Obuchi-style, is becoming a favorite national flavor.

But for all this good fortune, Obuchi admitted candidly in a relaxed interview in his official residence that his luck could run out at any time. The modest economic uptick, he knows, could be nothing more than a false promise.

Meanwhile, across all of Asia, new tensions surface almost daily, from the straits of Taiwan to the troubled Korean peninsula to the roiled island archipelago of Indonesia.

And every day, a Japanese prime minister has the task of governing while saddled by a ragtag political system that could unravel at any moment.

"It has been only a year since I became prime minister," he explained, "and again, I am facing re-election within my own party.

"Combining all the elections [in our political system], the prime minister has to face the judgment of the electorate every year or even every six months, which is such a short term. It is difficult to run policy when the leader does not have a fixed term of office,'' he sighed.

As palpable as Obuchi's irritation was, however, so was his determination to soldier on. On the morning of the interview, the latest official economic statistics showed that the long moribund Japanese economy was growing - just barely.

From Indonesia, with more than 200 million people, news reports have shown bloodshed rampant in East Timor - with no certain idea when the killing will stop. Obuchi was firm on the Indonesian issue, particularly for a politician sitting precariously atop a shaky coalition government and burdened with a national constitution that categorically discourages strong military action.

He indirectly slapped the Western news media for underplaying Indonesia's extraordinary achievement in holding relatively fairelections in troubled East Timor but agreed that if the Indonesian authorities in Jakarta failed to end the violence, the international community would have to do it for them.

"I think the UN should once again play the role of settling the situation, and Japan intends to provide all possible support to that end.

"The responsibility for public safety in Indonesia lies with Indonesia itself. But if the Indonesian measures do not result in an improvement in public safety, then I think Japan will have to take the position of supporting an international military force."

This is almost as big a stick as any postwar Japanese prime minister ever shakes in public. So I asked him how so apparently forceful a position on Indonesia could be reconciled with the straitjacket of Japan's postwar prohibition on proactive military force.

Obuchi agreed that it is Japan's dilemma to be searching for a vision of global involvement but be ill equipped to do the full global job: "As you have pointed out, we are abiding by the Japanese constitution, and thus we are forbidden to contribute to world peace by any military presence. We are trying hard to contribute to world peace by pursuing human security - that is, to achieve security for human beings."

The prime minister well understands that unless Japan redefines its goals to allow for its own built-in limitation as a would-be world power, it will inevitably fail to achieve them.

Obuchi, in fact, might be the first Japanese leader in memory to be so sufficiently aware of both his own personal limitations and those of his beloved country that he might actually be able to avoid the worst pitfalls of both.

"Last year, as I recall, I was branded by the media as the most inappropriate person for the prime minister's job. Of course, I must humbly accept the media's criticism. But a politician must also overcome bad press and do what must be done," Obuchi said.

Because almost everything negative that can be said about a politician has at one time or another been said of him, he appears to have an almost preternatural determination to use whatever time he has left as prime minister to do what is right for Japan.

And that's a flavor of vanilla with an unusual twist and bite.

Tom Plate teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.