Japan limps its way towards being 'normal': The kingmaker who broke up the LDP has seen his reforms run aground. Now he is planning a super-coalition, writes Terry McCarthy from Tokyo

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The Independent Online
IN THE foreword to his book on reforming Japanese politics, Blueprint for a New Japan, Ichiro Ozawa writes about a visit he made to the Grand Canyon in the United States. Overawed by the depth of the canyon, Mr Ozawa suddenly noticed that there were no fences stopping visitors from approaching the edge. And he was surprised to see a young couple playing around on top of a large boulder with no park official warning them to be careful.

'There was not even a sign to that effect. In Japan there would be fences, 'no entry' signs, and park attendants who come running to warn people away.'

This, he saw, was the difference between the relative freedom of the individual in the West, and the constant government and bureaucratic supervision of citizens in Japan. The central theme of his book is the familiar call for change: Japan cannot continue its sheep-like economic quest while ignoring every other aspect of human development. It must develop into a 'normal' country. 'Let us begin by removing the fences and educating the people to their own responsibility for themselves.'

It is a year since the book was published in Japan. At first it was greeted with approval by the intellectual and political elite. But now, one year later, Mr Ozawa's campaign for a new Japan appears to have run aground. The reformist government he helped set up last summer has been thrown out of power and the two old dinosaurs of the Cold War era, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Socialists, have formed a coalition of convenience to stave off political and electoral reform laws.

Mr Ozawa himself, under a shadow for his strong-armed, dictatorial political manner is now being blamed for the break-up of his governing coaliton. His knickname is 'Steel-arm', which has offensive overtones to the consensus-minded Japanese. The proponents of the 'Japan never changes' theory are crowing.

Mr Ozawa's frequent secret trips to Britain - four in the past year - have led to speculation that the 52-year-old is receiving treatment for heart disease. He is known to have had a heart attack in June 1991. Even sober political columnists are now starting to ask: 'Is Ozawa finished?'

For the outside world, the larger question is whether the move to reform Japanese politics is also doomed. Will Japan continue to be ruled by unaccountable bureaucrats, who resist like the plague any deregulation of closed markets, or giving more power to consumers? Will the ostrich, head-in- the-sand pacifism continue to prevent Japan from playing any meaningful role in Bosnia, Rwanda, or Korea, beyond opening its cheque-book? Will Japan never be a 'normal country'?

The two issues are linked, since aside from Mr Ozawa no one else on the political scene has the power, vision and ruthlessness necessary to cut through decades of cosy backscratching between bureaucrats, politicians and big business - the 'iron triangle' - to create a new Japan.

The difficulties that Mr Ozawa has faced in his quest for reform in the past year are an object lesson in how well-entrenched is the 'iron triangle'. Facing the cynicism of the voting populace, the intransigence of the bureaucracy and the impotence of his political colleagues, Mr Ozawa has few friends. His abrupt personal manner does not make his task any easier.

Despite negative publicity, Mr Ozawa is determined to fight back. In the US last week he predicted that he would form a 'super-coalition' of reform-minded politicians by next month which would be able to take back power from the LDP. As an indication of the power he still wields, he has three former prime ministers - Tsutomu Hata, Morihiro Hosokawa and Toshiki Kaifu - to act as his front men for the proposed new coalition.

In a broader sense, Mr Ozawa also has the flow of history on his side. The old Cold War order, where Japan could concentrate on economic development while the US looked after everything else, is over. The increasingly uncertain situation in Korea and the longer-term expansionism of China will force Japan to shed its nave pacifism, whether it likes it or not.

Meanwhile, at home, the rapid spread of discount shops has already shown that the consumer is fed up with subsidising the country's export industries.

But the process of change is going to be long and difficult. Last year's election which put the LDP out of power after 38 years was not a decisive break, but merely the beginning of a process. Mr Ozawa used that election temporarily to remove the fences and bring the Japanese populace up to the edge of the canyon.

But a lot of people got scared looking down into the depths. It will be some time before the Japanese sense of vertigo at its own future disappears.

(Photograph omitted)

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