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Man tipped to be Japan's PM under scrutiny: 'Nice Guy' is going to be tested in the world of 'Big Men', Terry McCarthy writes from Tokyo

TSUTOMU HATA, who is poised to be appointed Japan's next prime minister, is an oddity among Japanese politicians: he is known and liked as a 'Nice Guy'. While others around him have been accused of vice and corruption and even revel in their infamy, Mr Hata has emerged clean and unscathed, with a self-effacing smile and a handshake for the man in the street that is worth a thousand alibis.

But although this image will help Mr Hata's popularity ratings in the opinion polls, it will not count in the cut-throat deal-making of Tokyo's Nagatacho political district. Mr Hata will have to rely on the manipulatory skills of his ally, Ichiro Ozawa, to keep the government from falling apart. Since the resignation of Morihiro Hosokawa two weeks ago, Mr Ozawa has spelt out policies for the next government to pursue on political and economic reform and on confronting North Korea's nuclear threat. Objections to these policies by hardliners in the Socialist Party are likely to delay the formation of a new government until next week.

Politicians in Japan are respected in the tradition of feudal lords. These 'Big Men' are admired for being ruthless in the exercise of power, but at the same time are expected to be generous in spreading the enormous wealth they accumulate in office. The archetype was Kakuei Tanaka, arrested in 1976 for accepting bribes in the Lockheed scandal, who continued to run the country through the vast network of people who owed him favours and through his fund-raising abilities. The unscrupulous schemer, who smiled as he plunged a dagger into a rival's back, touched a chord in many voters' hearts. Thousands attended his funeral earlier this year.

Mr Hata is not like that. 'Mr Nice Guy' loves his wife, and goes to concerts and restaurants with her - bizarre in a culture where powerful men leave their spouses to care for the children as they carouse with hostesses in expensive restaurants and clubs. Mr Hata is not counted as a 'Big' (corrupt) fund-raiser in political circles. He has not been the subject of special investigations over political scandals.

Born in 1935, Mr Hata graduated with a degree in economics from the small but elite Seijo University in Tokyo before working for 10 years with a bus company. In 1969 he entered politics, taking up his father's seat in the Diet (parliament) for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He belonged to the cash-rich and now discredited Takeshita faction, but steered clear of the more sordid side of the faction's business.

Much of Mr Hata's political career has been taken up with agriculture. His pronouncement in December 1987 that Japanese intestines were different to those of foreigners and that foreign beef was not suitable for Japanese stomachs has come back to haunt him. But he cheerfully admits he made the comment in his role as protector of Japan's agricultural market.

Although he does not have the political bullying power of Mr Ozawa, he is committed to the reform of politics. He became the leader of the Japan Renewal Party that was formed by defectors from the LDP last June, and was the main campaigner for the reformers in the elections that followed.

In his homely speeches, Mr Hata repeatedly returns to the life and cares of the futsu no hito (ordinary person). After decades of self-sacrifice in the service of Japan's economic miracle, Mr Hata believes that the ordinary people should receive a better return for their efforts. This is the kind of message voters like to hear.

But with the powerful bureaucracy committed to preserving the status quo, and his coalition partners barely on speaking terms, Mr Nice Guy faces a tough time as the next prime minister.

(Photograph omitted)