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Japan's heavyweights share the pain of paralysis

IT CAN happen during a sumo bout that one or both of the wrestlers receives a serious injury without ending the contest by falling from the ring - say a head wound, from the crashing together of skulls.

It is a rare occurence, but in such a situation the judges can declare itamiwake - a draw because of injury, which literally means 'dividing the pain'.

Japanese politics is in a similarly inconclusive itamiwake. Tsutomu Hata, who became Prime Minister last week, has been forced to form a minority government that will have little chance of implementing policies, apart from passing the overdue budget. His grand coalition suffered a blow when the Socialist Party defected hours after voting for him as Prime Minister, when they discovered right-wing parties in the government were forming an alliance against them. At best the Hata cabinet may limp through the next two months, before new elections are called in late June or July.

The opposition parties are licking their own wounds. In the past fortnight, 17 members of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have defected. But tensions in the party are unresolved, and Michio Watanabe, a principal faction leader, came close to crossing the floor to the government coalition two weeks ago: an act that would have destroyed the LDP's hopes of regaining power in the next elections.

And the Socialists, although buoyant after leaving the government on a matter of principle, look fearfully at opinion polls which give them ratings of less than 10 per cent. They had 137 of the 511 seats in the Diet (parliament) before last summer's elections, and held on to 77 in the polls that ended the LDP's 38- year run of power. Now they will be lucky to win more than 40 seats.

The political landscape is littered with bruised, bleeding, disabled and exhausted bodies, with the 'pain' divided between all parties and factions. Just as in sumo's itamiwake, when there is no winner to squat on one side of the ring and take the prize, so there is no one in Japan's political world to take control. Ironically, the main effects are not being felt much in Japan, where few voters expect much from their discredited representatives, and where bureaucrats have traditionally kept the system going while the politicians bicker.

But internationally, Japan's political vacuum is a cause for concern. Foreign policy issues are left unaddressed, because there is no one to talk to in Tokyo. This paralysis, reminiscent of the Gulf War, when Japan could not make up its mind how to respond to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, irritates foreign governments because of its repetitive nature. The United States administration is frustrated because the politicians who promised to open Japan's markets are now lame ducks. The US has received a report from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which says charges that Japan's markets are closed 'are not supported by facts' - in contradiction to what reformist politicians have been saying for eight months.

The Group of Seven industrialised countries are thinking ahead with foreboding to the G7 summit in Naples in July, where Japan's Prime Minister is unlikely to make meaningful commitments to anything.

Most urgent is the showdown with North Korea, over its continuing refusal to allow inspection of its suspect nuclear plants. Although on Japan's doorstep, Tokyo has been unable to say whether it would support US calls for United Nations sanctions on North Korea, since many Socialists fear this would contravene Japan's anti-war Constitution. The US Defense Secretary, William Perry, said last week that a call for sanctions would be made immediately, if North Korea replaces a nuclear reactor core in the next couple of weeks without international monitoring.

The government has a core of realists, led by Ichiro Ozawa, who see the need for a strong policy on North Korea, and for determined moves to deregulate the economy. But they are reeling from the political chaos, with their share of the 'divided pain'. What distresses foreign diplomats in Tokyo is the possibility that this political concussion could last months or years, in the absence of a new, outside threat like the old and much-lamented Cold War.