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IMPEACHMENT HEARINGS: Japan offers Clinton respite

AS THE House judiciary committee opened its impeachment hearings yesterday, Bill Clinton was indulging what has become a habit of his at such times - of getting away from it all. This time, the United States President was about as far from Washington as he could possibly be, on the other side of the world in Japan.

And as the committee chairman, Henry Hyde, raised his gavel to call the opening session to order, Mr Clinton had just emerged from a televised "town hall" meeting of the sort that has become a trademark of his foreign trips. If he had hoped that Japanese reticence and etiquette would save him from embarrassment, though, he was wrong.

The Lewinsky scandal had pursued him across the globe. Bowing respectfully, a Japanese woman asked him how he had apologised to his wife and daughter and whether they had forgiven him. "I did it in a direct and straightforward manner," he replied, slightly hesitantly, "and I believe they did, yes... But that is really a question you could ask them better than me."

This, though, was the first and last question on the sex scandal. After the President's answer, the moderator quickly changed the subject back to the weightier economic and political subjects he had come to Japan to discuss.

Sounding more positive about Japan's economic reforms and more optimistic about the results than on previous occasions, Mr Clinton said: "The big things that have been done here are essentially moving in the right direction - the banking reform, stimulating the economy." While repeating Washington's perennial call for Japan to open its markets more to foreign competition and exercise more regional leadership, Mr Clinton also paid tribute to what Tokyo had already done. "Despite economic difficulties at home," he said, "you've contributed towards financial relief in the[Asian] region. That is true leadership."