Japan hardliner launches cheery bid for power

Scourge of Washington is likely to triumph, writes Richard Lloyd Parry in Tokyo
Ryutaro Hashimoto, Japan's Minister for International Trade and Industry, is not a politician renowned for jolly catch phrases. A dry, good-looking 58-year-old, he is best known as a conservative nationalist, and as the man who beat off the United States in fierce trade talks earlier this year. But this week, he launched his latest bid for power with the uncharacteristically chirpy slogan: "Cheer Up, Japan!"

Under this banner Mr Hashimoto looks certain to become the next leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). If he succeeds, he is likely to be the next prime minister.

Japan needs some cheering up, and so do the politicians. Over the last year the country has suffered an unprecedented series of disasters, from the Kobe earthquake to the Tokyo nerve-gas attacks, from economic stagnation to the diplomatic debacle of the "apology" to the British Prime Minister, John Major.

The sense of crisis has been heightened by near paralysis in the coalition government. The Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, is a Socialist whose indecision in the face of disaster has disillusioned voters and is blamed for the lowest electoral turn-out since the war. His Social Democratic Party (SDP) faces annihilation at the next election, which is likely to be held next year.

The next prime minister is almost certain to be a member of the LDP, the largest single party in the Diet, which lost its majority in 1993 after 38 years of unbroken power. Since that black day, the LDP has suffered also from a crisis of confidence.

Mr Hashimoto's adversary is the LDP's president, the Foreign Minister, Yohei Kono. Both are 58, young by Japanese political standards, and both inherited seats in the Diet from their fathers.

But in other respects they occupy opposing corners of the LDP. Mr Kono is a moderate, cautious Foreign Minister, but an increasingly unpopular figure who has suffered a loss of support since the LDP's defeat in elections to the upper house of the Diet last month.

Yesterday, the former prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, joined the former foreign minister and party godfather Michio Watanabe in supporting Mr Hashimoto. The group that they head used to be called the Kono faction, but Mr Kono has lost the support of the politicians once led by his father.

Rumours suggest two possible outcomes. Either Mr Kono will find a pretext for dropping out of the race to save himself from public humiliation, or Mr Hashimoto, who is said to have a lively private life, will find himself brought down in a scandal.

Mr Hashimoto is the most popular politician in the country, with a rating of 27 per cent compared to Mr Kono's 11 per cent. His combative stance against Mickey Kantor, the US trade negotiator, who threatened Japan with punitive sanctions during talks on the car trade in June, earned him nightly television appearances. As the US deadline approached, his cool defiance and fancied resemblance to Elvis Presley made him a celebrity. He is popular with Japan's powerful bureaucrats, who appreciate hisattention to detail.

But Mr Hashimoto's conservatism worries foreign diplomats and moderates in his party. As president of the Japan Association of War-Bereaved Families, he opposed the Prime Minister's apology for Japanese atrocities in the Second World War. At last week's commemorations for the 50th anniversary of Japan's surrender, he was one of 10 LDP ministers who prayed at the controversial Yasukuni shrine where the country's war dead are enshrined.

Contests for the LDP presidency used to be predictable affairs, determined by the party chiefs. Since the LDP's defeat the system has disintegrated, as floating voters abandon the traditional parties and LDP Diet members stray from the old factions. One third of the votes will come from grass- roots LDP members, for whom Mr Hashimoto has strong appeal. Many MPs have also decided the Trade and Industry Minister has the best chance of saving their electoral skins - and of cheering them all up.