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G7 Summit: 'Criminal' Clinton enrages Japanese

PRESIDENT Bill Clinton has antag onised his hosts in Tokyo by appearing to back opposition parties that are challenging the status quo in Japan's elections next week. An aide to Kiichi Miyazawa, the Prime Minister, said that Mr Clinton was a 'premeditated criminal' for his vocal support for 'change' in Japan.

Japan's media has been quick to interpret a number of comments by Mr Clinton as US backing for the opposition parties that are challenging the 38-year rule of Mr Miyazawa's party, the Liberal Democrats. This has infuriated Mr Miyazawa, who had hoped to use the G7 summit to boost his political popularity, now languishing at 6.7 per cent. 'The series of remarks (by Mr Clinton) are obviously domestic interference,' said Mr Miyazawa's aide.

Officially Mr Clinton has denied that he is taking any position on the election, in which a new group of reformist parties are almost certain to deprive the LDP of its majority in the Diet (parliament). But with the country in the midst of an election campaign, Mr Clinton's repeated references to 'change' as something desirable for Japan have left few doubts about where he stands.

'The changes now going on in Japan, over the long run, are going to be good for the Japanese people,' said Mr Clinton before flying to Tokyo. Once he arrived, the President had another indirect crack at the LDP when he praised democracy, because it enabled countries to maintain good relations 'despite changes in government'. And in the middle of the summit, he went out of his way to meet Tsutomu Hata and Morihiro Hoso kawa, the heads of the two most important opposition parties.

Mr Clinton's administration has begun to take a much tougher approach towards Japan than the previous Republican presidents. The US has a dollars 50bn ( pounds 34bn) trade deficit with Japan, and the President is pushing for a trade agreement which will have concrete measures for reducing the imbalance.

The US expects the new reformist parties will be more sympathetic to calls to open up Japan's domestic markets. At a speech at Waseda University, President Clinton pointed out that a Japanese family spends more than twice as much of its income on food than an American family, echoing the championing of consumers' interests of the new political parties.

'There is no doubt that the US supports the reformers in Japanese politics,' said Kuniko Inoguchi, a professor of political science at Tokyo's Sophia University. 'And that still counts for a lot in this country.'

It is one of the curious features of Japan that the President of the US - and by extension the US ambassador to Tokyo - occupies a position that in most countries belongs to the leader of the political opposition. Everything that these men say that might have the vaguest relevance to Japan is reported and analysed in exhaustive detail by the Japanese media.