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If Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s overseas foreign-policy tour this week has a theme, it is “coverup” and “damage control.” Mori, known as a colorless political fixer, has been tasked with assuring foreign leaders that the July G8 summit will go forward successfully no matter what happens on the Japanese political scene. U.S. President Bill Clinton and other leaders of course would like to hear more from Tokyo, but this is about all they are likely to get.

Despite the photos in the Japanese press showing Mori posing and smiling with other G8 leaders, everyone knows that the new prime minister has little personal interest in global affairs and no significant foreign-policy experience. Mori has climbed to where he is by being a consensus builder and behind-the-scenes Liberal Democratic Party apparatchik. To do this, he has always taken short cuts: He was implicated in insider trading in the 1988 Recruit scandal, is short-tempered, and has a tendency to make flip remarks that get him into hot water.

Now, as one of a new generation of “shadow shoguns” in Japanese politics, deal-maker Mori has no qualms about going abroad to tone down foreign demands for greater deregulation and easier access to Japan’s markets. He and his inner circle of political operatives have no interest in opening up Japan to the Americans or anyone else. Indeed, given his troubles at home, this presummit damage-control strategy might be Mori’s only option if he wants to raise his sagging showing in opinion polls.

By now, the G8 leaders have figured out that the Japanese political scene is cracking up very quickly, that Japan’s economic recovery is still far off, and that given the unpopularity of Mori’s ruling LDP, the Lower House election scheduled for June 25 could throw the political system into even greater turmoil.

Taking a tough stand on Japan’s market opening at the Okinawa “IT Summit” may be the G8’s last chance to effect change in Japan. Mori decided to make the rounds of the summit participants to make sure that they understand what the Japanese view of the Okinawa summit is. His mission has been to convince them that they don’t want to do anything to upset the party.

Despite Mori’s own declaration in his initial policy speech that his selection as prime minister was an act of providence, everyone also knows that his administration is a caretaker government. And the last thing Mori wants is for the G8 summit in Okinawa to degenerate into another black eye for Japan’s political leadership, especially before an election. Mori has promised his ruling coalition government that the summit will go off without a hitch, and now he has to deliver.

The initial reaction at the White House to the April 2 coup led by the “Gang of Five” LDP leaders following Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s massive stroke was one of surprise and disbelief. Now, a month later, while the coverup about what really happened to Obuchi continues, everyone in Washington seems to accept that Mori, even if he is just a stand-in, is the point man for the ruling coalition.

Until April 5, when the Mori Cabinet was formed, nobody in Washington had ever heard of him. Mori is the seventh Japanese prime minister to hold office since Clinton took office in January 1993, and if Mori has learned anything from his predecessors, it is that Clinton president can be outmaneuvered on almost any issue.

The “Mori card” will be the prime minister’s ability to turn on the political charm. Even if there is nothing substantive on his agenda, Mori knows that he and Clinton share a love of the rough-and-tumble of political expediency, coverup politics and behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. Massaging opinion polls and positioning themselves to capitalize on popular sentiment is what both men really understand and enjoy. And what is going on in Tokyo behind closed doors could be just what Clinton wants to hear about.

Mori and Clinton can also empathize with each other’s status as a lame duck. Clinton now spends his spare time focusing on his postpresidential options, fundraising for wife Hillary’s Senate campaign in New York, and getting China into the World Trade Organization. Mori knows that he is leading his party to defeat in June in the first serious Japanese election in three years.

Whether they are lame ducks or not, the real question is whether Clinton will let Mori play his little game and avoid coming to grips with the hard issues troubling the bilateral relationship.

Clinton is the last line of defense on Mori’s current trip and, according to Nelson Report editor Chris Nelson in Washington, “Mori has it all wrong if he thinks access to the Japanese telecommunications market is an American issue. All of the G8 countries are ticked off at Tokyo and the Okinawa IT Summit could get nasty if Mori doesn’t start to act like a world leader rather than some back-room political hack.”

Clinton does not want a fight with Tokyo, but throughout his presidency he has allowed Japanese prime minister after prime minister to walk all over him. This meeting with Mori will be his last chance to show the Japanese that he can be serious when it comes to the interests of U.S. troops and the country as a whole.

In the security area, there is still the problem of the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa. And then there is the question of how long the U.S. government will tolerate Japanese gangsters burning dioxin-laden garbage next to the Atsugi U.S. Naval Air Facility in Kanagawa Prefecture.

U.S. business and labor groups are also still dissatisfied with the level of access to the Japanese market for construction contracts, the sale of flat glass, and Japanese steel exports to the U.S. High on the list for immediate discussion by the U.S. high-tech community is the reduction of NTT domestic-interconnection telephone charges. Even so, the Japanese walked out of the bilateral NTT talks last week, indicating that Mori and his political cronies were still not willing to crack a few rice bowls in Japan for the sake of fair access for international telecom firms.

Right now, Clinton is all that stands between Mori and the Japanese effort to turn the Okinawa summit into a meaningless love fest. If Mori is allowed to leave the Oval Office on Friday without answering for a decade of Japanese stonewalling on trade and security issues, then Clinton’s reputation as a flop on Asia policy will be sealed.

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