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Japan is enveloped in gloom at the dawn of the 21st century, as is much of the rest of the world. The administration of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori continues to suffer from dismally low public-approval ratings, despite the major Cabinet reshuffle he carried out last month. The reorganization of the central bureaucracy that took effect this month did not help much, either.

Across the Pacific, U.S. President-elect George W. Bush is encountering some opposition to his Cabinet nominations in the wake of the political turmoil that surrounded the presidential election.

There is growing concern over the future of the sputtering Japanese economy. Mori administration officials have been saying that the economy has already bottomed out and will start recovering later this year, but few believe this forecast. In the United States, major interest-rate cuts announced recently by the Federal Reserve reportedly failed to give a strong enough stimulus to the U.S. economy and instead merely confirmed its worse-than-expected slowdown.

The Mori administration has been plagued by widespread doubts about its legitimacy since it was established last April through backroom dealings by several leaders of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Mori’s penchant for saying the wrong thing has led critics to question his qualifications for the premiership. For six months following the birth of the first Mori administration, his Cabinet’s public-approval ratings stayed below 20 percent.

The aborted rebellion in November staged by Koichi Kato, an LDP dissident leader, provided a golden opportunity for the Mori administration to recover from its political nadir. Keenly aware of this, Mori persuaded LDP heavyweights to join his new Cabinet last month. The Cabinet includes two ex-prime ministers — Ryutaro Hashimoto, who took up a new ministerial post, and Kiichi Miyazawa, who retained his finance portfolio.

However, the Cabinet reshuffle failed to impress the public. People realize that the prime minister, rather than political heavyweights in his Cabinet, determines the nation’s destiny. The more worried they are about the nation’s future, the more expectations they will have of their top leader. This is reflected in the wide coverage given to national leaders by Japanese newspapers and magazines.

In its Jan. 1 edition, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper listed these men as potential prime ministers: Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, former Financial Reconstruction Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, former trade minister Kaoru Yosano, Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa and former Health and Welfare Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The weekly magazine AERA, in its New Year’s issue, published a roster of the “best 20th-century Cabinet” that was made up of leaders recommended by five political cartoonists.

The Cabinet was headed by Shigeru Yoshida, who most cartoonists thought was the best prime minister in Japanese history. Former Prime Ministers Tanzan Ishibashi, Yasuhiro Nakasone, Nobusuke Kishi, Takeo Miki and Kakuei Tanaka filled major Cabinet posts.

In my opinion, former Prime Ministers Hayato Ikeda and Eisaku Sato should have been included in the all-star list.

The fact that the roster did not include Mori or any members of his Cabinet proves the paucity of great leaders in Japan at the dawn of the new century.

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