Domestic politics is not my specialty, but I am so disturbed by recent developments that I am prompted to write down some of my thoughts. First, newspaper comments and articles suggest that the opposition parties and the media have succeeded in establishing a public image of Yoshiro Mori as an incompetent and loose-tongued prime minister.

Newspaper and magazine comments also made a fool of Mori’s predecessor, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. As I recall, however, it was Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki who was most ridiculed. One commentator, when asked why Suzuki had stepped down, said; “People made a fool of him so much that he probably got sick and tired of the whole thing.”

I myself had considerable reservations about some of the things Suzuki said and did while in office. For example, following a meeting with U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1981, the prime minister denied the military aspect of the Japan-U.S. alliance. That denial exposed his ignorance about the essentials of international politics and diplomacy. And in 1982, immediately before a scheduled trip to China, he botched the textbook issue (involving descriptions of Japan’s wartime activities) — a blunder that has marred Japan’s diplomacy toward China to this day.

By contrast, Mori, as far as I know, has said or done nothing to hurt the national interest. His comment on Japan as a “nation of gods with the Emperor at its center” was a matter-of-fact remark to an audience of Shinto priests. The speech as a whole was logically constructed. The message was simple: All religions are equal, and it is good that people feel reverence for whatever religion they embrace. Yet Mori was criticized for trying to change the nation’s democratic constitutional system. Critics even sought foreign reactions. Although much of the criticism stemmed from partisan designs to drive him into a corner, the entire episode left a bad taste.

Mori was also blamed for revealing, in a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a “secret” Japanese plan involving Tokyo-Pyongyang negotiations over the alleged abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents. Mori did not put Japan’s “trump card” on the table prematurely, as critics say he did. The truth is that the plan was no secret; North Korea already knew about it. So even if Blair had told Pyongyang about it, that in itself would have done no harm to Japan’s national interest.

That plan, purportedly designed to break the deadlock in the negotiations, had been devised by the Liberal Democratic Party before Mori took office. The way in which he revealed it is of little diplomatic importance; it is, if anything, a minor and technical question of diplomatic procedure, not a basic mistake of national strategy, like those perpetrated by the Suzuki Cabinet.

Mori was also criticized for going to see a rugby game when he had so many problems on his hands. Such criticism is nonsense. It comes, presumably, from those nit-picking people who are anxious to create a bad image for him.

In my view, these and other criticisms leveled against Mori reflect the realities of Japanese politics. With the Cold War over, the ideological lines dividing the conservative and reformist forces have all but disappeared. Elections are now fought more or less over “images.” In fact, parties and candidates have won many elections simply because they have been able to project new images. Even if they can’t come up with a new image for themselves, they can still win by creating a bad image for their rivals.

Before June’s Lower House election, the opposition camp branded Obuchi a fool. But his sudden death, coming at a time when that image campaign was on the verge of succeeding, raised the possibility that his untimely death would draw a large sympathy vote, with many undecided voters casting ballots for the LDP and its candidates. Then came Mori’s “nation of gods” statement. The opposition camp seized the opportunity and attacked him for trying to dump the democratic constitutional system.

It is true that, compared with bureaucrats-turned-politicians, Mori is rather careless about his words and deeds, and that this makes him vulnerable to attack from his critics and opponents.

If one dog barks at the moon, a thousand curs follow suit, the saying goes. If a certain image is established, it has a way of feeding on itself. Some wise guys blamed Mori for going to see a rugby game when he had serious business to attend to, and millions of people simply went along with them. The opposition camp may have won the image fight, but the victory — if it can be called that — is nothing to cheer about.

The tripartite ruling coalition, not just the prime minister, is also coming under fire. I myself often feel impatient at the way the alliance is managed. It should be remembered, however, that a legislative package mapping out ground rules for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation passed the Diet because the three parties were united. The package would not have become law if, instead of uniting, they had tried to strike a deal with the divided Democratic Party of Japan. Japanese diplomacy is now stable because the Japan-U.S. alliance has been reaffirmed and strengthened by the legislation.

The enactment of the guidelines bills, a major achievement of the tripartite coalition, helped set the stage for subsequent developments on the Korean Peninsula that amount to a virtual diplomatic revolution in the Far East: the improvement in Japan-South Korea relations; the establishment of a trilateral system of cooperation among Japan, the United States and South Korea; and the detente in inter-Korean relations.

People should judge politics in terms of policy, not image. They should not try to catch politicians out on mere slips of the tongue. With the economy facing uncertain prospects, opinion is split over whether the government should aim at reducing the budget deficit or further stimulating growth. In this murky situation, one policy that will clearly serve Japan’s long-term interests is promoting the information-technology revolution and thereby boosting the productivity and international competitiveness of Japanese industry.

The Mori administration is moving positively in this direction, based on the Okinawa summit agreement and IT-related legislation. It is, therefore, in the national interest to have this administration pursue its IT-oriented policy.

During the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton, Japan-U.S. relations entered their most unstable period since the end of the Cold War. That period began with difficult economic negotiations in which Washington made undue demands on Tokyo, but ended well through mutual efforts to overcome the difficulties.

With a new period opening in bilateral relations, the U.S. has high expectations for Japan, according to a suprapartisan report published just a month before the U.S. presidential election. It is my hope that Japan will stop playing an “image game” at home and begin discussing a common strategy for Asia in response to those expectations. Japanese politics now have a good chance of emerging from a quicksand of confusion and stagnation.

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