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Koichi Kato, head of a large faction in the Liberal Democratic Party, now aims openly to be Japan’s next prime minister. He has credentials. A former diplomat with good English skills and wide international contacts, he would do much to improve Japan’s bland global image. He is also one of the few LDP politicians to live up to the word “liberal” in the name of that very conservative party.

He could also help keep Japan away from the ugly U.S.-China brawl developing over Taiwan. He still speaks fluently the Chinese he learned as a trainee diplomat in Taiwan during the 1960s. Like others with similar experience (including this writer), he realizes deeply the need for dialogue rather than confrontation with Beijing.

When the guidelines for Japan’s future military relationship with the United States were being hammered out in the mid-’90s, he gamely confronted LDP hawks determined to have Taiwan included in the area to which Japan would be committed to help the U.S. in an “emergency.” He may not have won that battle — as always, the conservatives who run Japan were happy to leave the issue in dangerous ambiguity. But at least he tried.

At a relatively young 61, he would inject some vitality into Japan’s geriatric politics. He might also inject a much-needed ideological clarity, since his efforts to reach the top would almost certainly force a split in the LDP, with him seeking to lead the party’s progressives into some kind of coalition with Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan.

That said, the timing and manner of his run for top office leave something to be desired. Japanese politics, never known for their rationality, are heading for an even sillier season than most. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is under media attack because his popularity ratings are low. Why are the ratings low? Because he is under media attack.

The media find the matches to ignite an alleged political scandal. They then try to get kudos for finding the pump to douse the fire, in this case with the call for a new prime minister. The fact that in the process they sell more newspapers and enhance their role as king-makers is quite coincidental, of course.

According to the media, Mori’s latest mistake is revealing an allegedly secret and ill-considered plan to solve the impasse with North Korea by having the 10 or so Japanese citizens said to have been abducted there re-emerge in some third country.

Three things are wrong with this thesis. First, the plan was never secret; it belonged to an all-party delegation that went to Pyongyang three years ago. Second, he did not reveal it; he mentioned it in private talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and it was later revealed by subordinates. And finally, if it was ill-considered, has anyone a better idea for getting Pyongyang to release the abductees without unacceptable loss of face?

Mori’s willingness to talk to Blair about such matters is impressive proof of the urgency he attaches to opening relations with North Korea. That Japan’s rightwing media, determined to keep relations with North Korea in deadlock, should be unimpressed is understandable. But what are we to say about the fury unleashed on Mori over the issue by the progressive media?

Mori has made his mistakes. But so have almost all LDP politicians, including Kato who in his need for political funds has in the past let himself get involved with several unsavory types. A prime minister who at least speaks his mind is an improvement on yet another poker face, skilled at saying one thing and meaning another.

Kato focuses his criticisms mainly on the government’s current policy of increased spending for public works. And if he argued that the policy was counterproductive — that the spending that the government and many others believe is crucial to economic recovery, on balance does more harm than good since mounting deficits hurt consumer confidence — he would be making an interesting if very debatable point.

But like many others of the antifiscal-expansion school, he simply repeats the mantra that expanding deficits is wrong per se, and there is a need for bravery in economic reforms and fiscal stringency. It is an almost exact repeat of the policies he and others urged on former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, in 1996-7. The results then were disastrous — an incipient recovery strangled at birth, a financial system forced to the wall and an economy that has been struggling ever since to get back on its feet.

Questioned on just this point in a recent TV interview, all Kato could say was that the 1996-7 moves were “not properly explained” to the Japanese public. He shares the naive beliefs of Japan’s samurai commentators and economists that the public will respond happily to a program of economic slash and burn a la Thatcher once they know that the bitter medicine will be good for them in the long run.

One is tempted to say that if these would-be reformists did not understand the public mind in 1996, there is little chance they can do better today.

But they do understand the simple minds of their largely economically illiterate followers. For as they repeat their mantras at political rallies and TV talk shows in anticipation of Mori’s fall, the heads nod in unison to the grim warnings of impending fiscal disaster.

The level of public debt is monstrous. But so too is the level of private savings draining crucial demand from the economy. Of course someone is going to have to pay off the deficit in the future. That, hopefully, will be the role of those excessive savings once recovery is in place.

The immediate priority is get this economy moving upward as quickly and firmly as possible. Otherwise there will not even be a future to worry about.

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