Boring leader who got Japan moving

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 April, 2000, 12:00am

It is hard to avoid the sad conclusion that Keizo Obuchi, lying near death in a Tokyo hospital, in all likelihood has worked himself to this state over one of the most difficult jobs in the modern political world. For Japan can boast of one of the world's most successful economies, but also one of its most inept polities.

The job of Japanese prime minister may not be one for mere mortals. For this reason, perhaps, even as Mr Obuchi faded, he began receiving praise from around the world for at least nudging Japan, an immovable ship, out of the safe harbour of tradition and into the unsettling waters of economic reform. He has not only been Japan's most successful prime minister of the 1990s, but undoubtedly its hardest working.

He has also been the most pro-American of all recent prime ministers, and the least charismatic. And he knew about charisma: the most dynamic non-Japanese politician of his lifetime, he said, was Robert Kennedy, whom he had met as a young student in America. The private session left an indelible pro-American impression on him.

Though unfailingly patriotic and loyal to the idea of Japan as a pre-eminent culture, he became increasingly convinced that in some respects, the American critique of his country was more right than wrong - and that the enemy of Japan was not Americanisation or globalisation, but Japan's own neurotic tendency to resist change.

Mr Obuchi replied to this with a style of reform that was almost the exact opposite of his predecessor Ryutaro Hashimoto. Handsome, dashing and confrontational, Mr Hashimoto was everything today's media could desire of a political leader. He was also almost wholly ineffective. Mr Obuchi, by contrast, was plain-looking, plain-speaking - and almost terminally boring. But he became remarkably effective at getting the Diet - the national parliament - to move major reform legislation to passage, whether for controversial new defence arrangements with Western allies, or long-needed internal reforms.

Mr Obuchi, then, fashioned himself not as Japan's president, but its majority leader - a small-bore version of Lyndon Johnson, patching, leading, cajoling behind the scenes where, embroiled in the very kinds of negotiations that could not be shown to the public, he has been a star at the difficult art of consensus-building.

But in the end, even committed reformer Mr Obuchi was sucked back into the vortex of crabby Japanese factionalism. Last week, the small Liberal Party, a key part of the patchwork coalition dominated by the mammoth Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in which he has spent his career, clashed publicly with his government's policies, threatening its hold on the Diet.

But he must have known political trouble would materialise in this form. For it was clear, during a recent interview I had with him, that he was anything but the foremost fan of the political system he had been entrusted to lead. He complained about the endless politicking required simply to keep a coalition government together - energy, he suggested, that could be much better used to keep the country moving forward together.

I was moved, and at the end of the interview, ventured an unprompted, half-joking outburst: 'Obuchi for president!' After the translator laughed, she passed back his reaction: 'You mean, Obuchi for president of the LDP?' No, I said, for president of Japan. That comment drew a shy smile of appreciation from Mr Obuchi, who might well have soared like an eagle had the Japanese system offered him some way of being able to take off without so many turkeys on his back.