Mr Hashimoto, who took office amid low expectations, has ended up presiding over what could be the biggest political and economic reforms Japan has seen since World War II. When he was elected LDP president (but not prime minister) in September 1995, many viewed the post as a poisoned chalice. His party faced electoral disaster as it clung to power through an unpopular alliance with the Social Democratic Party, its longtime political enemy. However, shortly after taking over as Prime Minister from the ineffectual SDP leader in January 1996, Mr Hashimoto pulled off his first surprise, persuading the United States to return the Futenma air base in Okinawa. A few months later, the LDP greatly increased its parliamentary strength in a re-election that devastated its coalition partners and the opposition. Since the 1996 election, Mr Hashimoto has continued to surprise by steadily implementing reforms. So far, he has passed legislation to begin Japan's financial Big Bang reforms; cut wasteful public works spending; re-negotiated the US-Japan defence treaty; and, perhaps most significantly, taken the leadership initiative away from the bureaucracy. Mr Hashimoto now faces the challenge of overcoming powerful lobby groups and pushing through legislation aimed at cutting the number of ministries to 12 from 21, which would reduce the number of bureaucrats and increase the power of the Cabinet and the politicians. As for the stagnant economy, Mr Hashimoto will somehow have to manage to keep it afloat without having room to cut interest rates or use fiscal stimulus. While doing this, he will also have the delicate balancing act of pacifying his uneasy coalition partners and an increasingly disgruntled right wing of the party. But Mr Hashimoto's vision of re-inventing Japan won't be realised in other areas until he can clear the bureaucratic logjams that still hamper some reforms.