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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hosokawa Faces Critical Test of His Power

TOKYO -- When Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa arrives at the White House in five weeks for a summit with President Clinton, he could be one of the most powerful leaders in postwar Japanese history. Or he could be a "dead body" -- Japan's rather brutal term for a lame duck.

The uncertainty over the political fate of Hosokawa during the next several weeks has rattled policy-makers on both sides of the Pacific as they try to plan the Feb. 11 meeting of the leaders of the world's two richest countries.

In the five months since his historic coalition government took office -- ending four decades of one-party conservative rule -- Hosokawa has scored some major successes and demonstrated striking political skills. He stands today as one of the most popular prime ministers Japan has ever seen. But if he fails to succeed on the next big test, his government could fall.

By Jan. 29, when the current session of the Diet, or parliament, ends, Hosokawa must achieve final passage of his ambitious plan to revamp the electoral system and the political contribution laws. If the legislative package does not pass, Hosokawa has said, he will "take the responsibility" -- a political euphemism that means he may resign and dissolve his cabinet.

Given his record to date, and what is believed to be a strong national desire for change in Japan's pervasively corrupt political system, most analysts expect Hosokawa to win passage of the political reform bills. But it is not a certainty.

This makes it tough for Hosokawa and his top aides to focus right now on U.S.-Japan relations and the huge Japanese trade surplus.

U.S. officials, in contrast, are clearly focused on Japan. With the North American Free Trade Agreement and the worldwide General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade successfully completed, Japan's trade-balance surplus has emerged as the chief target of the administration's trade policy.

But trying to get Hosokawa's government to focus on foreign trade right now is roughly equivalent to getting a U.S. president who is seeking reelection to focus on some distant policy issue in the week before the New Hampshire primary.

For one thing, Hosokawa may not have a government much longer if he does not win passage of the political reform bills this month.

And if he does succeed, Japan's political world will probably be busy with plans and schemes for large-scale realignment of the current party structure, which pits seven parties in a broad, fragile coalition, in opposition to the Liberal Democratic Party, which, despite its name, is Japan's most conservastive party.