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Who Speaks For Japan?
As Keizo Obuchi struggles to find his footing, opposition leader Naoto Kan is rapidly emerging as the country's most dynamic leader

It's hard to say who seemed shakier when leaders of the world's two mightiest economies met in New York last week. Bill Clinton was being pummeled by an endless stream of new details in the sex scandal that has all but paralyzed American policymaking. And Keizo Obuchi was laboring under the burden of a recession at home that threatens to bring the global economy down with it. Just before the meeting, Obuchi confided to a friend that he was concerned what the U.S. President might think of him: a Prime Minister with only eight weeks' experience already fighting for his political life. He came home with little beyond an agreement to meet Clinton again, early next year.

It's a summit that probably will never take place. Obuchi's chance of political survival is even weaker than that of Clinton, who faces imminent hearings on his possible impeachment. Obuchi has the lowest approval rating of any Japanese politician since 1993, just 24.5%. On the eve of his visit to the United States, the Prime Minister hashed out an agreement with opposition leader Naoto Kan on a plan to salvage Japan's battered banking system. But that apparent breakthrough was already collapsing under a typhoon of criticism by the time Obuchi returned to Tokyo Wednesday night. Opposition leaders accused his Liberal Democratic Party of backing down on a wide range of tough bank reforms. And editorial writers slammed Obuchi for shifting blame elsewhere while offering only vague promises of "an early turnaround" in the economy. Concedes LDP member Ichizo Ohara, a former minister of agriculture: "So far, Obuchi's leadership style has not been successful."

Just when Japan needs solid guidance, its lawmakers are focused instead on the battle to control the country's shifting political landscape. In one corner is Obuchi's LDP, fighting to preserve a ruling mandate and the remains of its traditional political power base. In the other is the Democratic Party of Japan (Minshuto), whose charismatic leader Naoto Kan senses an opportunity to shake up Japan's political Establishment. The LDP has been reeling since losing a July election in which Kan's party won an effective legislative veto in parliament. Kan has loudly threatened to use it to push wide-ranging reforms. "Now there is no central power in Japanese politics," says Kenji Goto, senior political writer for Kyodo News. "The patient is dying on the table while the doctors argue over what surgery to perform."

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P O L L :

Is Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi doing enough to revitalize his country's economy?


October 5, 1998

As another bank reform deal falls prey to partisan squabbling, the world wonders whether Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi or opposition leader Naoto Kan--or anyone--can take charge

Prosperous Fukui finally feels the pinch

Obuchi's visit is a bust

This edition's table of contents | TIME Asia home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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