Hosokawa's failings dash reform hopes: Terry McCarthy in Tokyo charts the decline of Japan's Prime Minister

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The Independent Online
WHEN Morihiro Hosokawa was appointed Prime Minister last August, he carried with him the hopes of many Japanese for a more accountable, civic-minded and less corrupt political leadership after the 38 years of uninterrupted Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) power. The seven-party coalition he led pledged to reform the system of money politics, rein in the power of anonymous bureaucrats, raise the standard of living for ordinary people, and craft a more assertive Japan on the world stage.

Today many of those hopes have been disappointed, and Mr Hosokawa is facing the same criticisms as the LDP leaders of the past: he is seen as indecisive, internationally maladroit, handicapped by faction fighting within his government, manipulated by bureaucrats, and open to charges of corruption and bribe-taking.

Allegations that he received pounds 625,000 from the infamous Sagawa trucking company have paralysed debate on next year's budget in the Japanese Diet (parliament) for the past two weeks. Some opposition politicians are even predicting that the Sagawa scandal will topple him. There are some signs that Japan is becoming a more open, outward-looking society, but Mr Hosokawa is getting little credit for it.

It has been a long but steep fall. Until Christmas Mr Hosokawa's popularity rating in the opinion polls was steadily above 70 per cent. It seemed the 56-year-old descendant of an ancient feudal lord could do no wrong. But in the latest opinion polls this week, his rating was 45 per cent in one survey - the first time his popularity has been less than 50 per cent during his eight months in power.

Time and again Mr Hosokawa has been forced to back down or compromise on issues that he had promised to push through parliament. On the central issue of his administration - political reform - an alliance of the LDP and the Socialists forced him to dilute electoral and campaign financing reform legislation beyond recognition. Opposition within his coalition also forced him to make an embarrassing retreat from a tax-reform plan. This month he also retracted a plan to reshuffle his cabinet after some coalition members threatened to walk out.

On the international front Mr Hosokawa aimed to project an image of a more confident, assertive Japan. After travelling to Washington to meet President Bill Clinton last month, his aides boasted that Mr Hosokawa had finally learnt to say 'No' to US trade demands. But within days Mr Hosokawa had retreated from his hardline stance, ordering his cabinet to take all possible measures to defuse trade friction with the US.

During his initial honeymoon period with the press, much was made of Mr Hosokawa's deliberately outgoing, upbeat media image. Unlike the faceless blue-suited LDP septuagenarians who sat back and droned formulaic responses to reporters' questions, Mr Hosokawa took his questions standing, and responded with vigour - a style his media advisers took from US politics. But as the problems of his government mounted and grew more complex, it began to become obvious that the Prime Minister had only the most superficial understanding of many of the issues. More and more he was seen to be relying on Ichiro Ozawa, the strong- arm but controversial powerbroker in the Japan Renewal Party, for political strategy and decision-making.

To cap his problems in the Diet is the resurgence of interest in the alleged bribe he accepted from the Sagawa trucking company, which has already been linked with organised crime and extensive political bribery. Mr Hosokawa has admitted receiving the pounds 625,000 from Sagawa, but maintains it was a loan which he has since fully repaid.

His critics point out that the loan was made just before Mr Hosokawa was running for the governorship of Kumamoto prefecture in 1983, that Sagawa's business prospered in the prefecture after Mr Hosokawa was elected, and that the Prime Minister has yet to provide receipts to prove the entire 'loan' was repaid. Mr Hosokawa says he has lost some of the receipts. Nor is it clear why he went to a trucking company instead of a bank for a loan which he says he used to pay for renovations to his house.