JAPAN'S lame-duck prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, is being compared these days to Keiki Tokugawa, Japan's last feudal shogun. Keiki, a person with an intelligent and forceful personality, was outmaneuvered by a group of younger samurai from several different fiefdoms and had to yield power in 1868 to the younger Emperor Meiji.
The imperial government was in fact run by these same young samurai, mostly from the feudal domains of Satsuma and Choshu. They exchanged their topknots and the two swords only samurai could wear (one sword was to commit suicide to avoid dishonor) for Victorian frock coats. The Emperor donned Western military uniform, and the court ladies adopted the latest Parisian fashions. These were only the outward symbols of revolutionary changes that brought an isolated feudal land into the modern world.
The political transformation Japan requires today is much less dramatic, at least on the surface. But if Mr. Miyazawa is being compared to the last ruler of a crumbling dynasty, it is because those who do so see Japan needing far-reaching changes that go well beyond tinkering with the electoral system. These changes will not only affect the beleaguered Liberal Democrats, the party that has ruled Japan for the past half century, but will eventually transform the country's political, economic, and social s ystems.
Commodore Perry's "black ships" - as the Japanese called his menacing squadron - dropped anchor off a port near the shogun's capital in 1853. They returned in 1854 and forced on a reluctant government a treaty opening the country to trade with the rest of the world. For 200 years before that, the Tokugawas kept the country sealed - allowing trade only with the Dutch at the port of Nagasaki.
The 15 years from 1853 to 1868 were a time of ferment. Some of the samurai who later formed the Meiji government started out opposing the shogun with the slogan, "Revere the emperor and expel the barbarians." Others smuggled themselves abroad, to learn firsthand how much more advanced than Japan the Western countries were in government, economics, and science.
Keiki, shogun at the end of those 15 years, tried desperately to maintain the feudal system while reforming it from within; he tried to open the country but control the process. He failed. There simply wasn't enough adaptability within the rigid, hierarchical Tokugawa system to withstand the sudden influx of so many competing new ideas.
Many scholars and analysts, Japanese and Western, believe that the changes brought about by the fall of the shoguns and the advent of Meiji's centralized, Western-style government have not been completed even today. Perhaps Japan needs a new Perry, with his "black ships." I'm not sure the Clinton administration, with its insistent demands for market-opening and for reducing Japan's huge surplus with the United States, is entirely qualified to play that role.
But just as Perry's demand for open trade started a process that eventually broke down a whole set of other barriers, so Washington's demands today resonate within Japan's body politic - the farmers, workers, students, business people, bureaucrats, and politicians who sense, with varying degrees of clarity, that for the sake of its own viability, the country has got to change.
Of course there is stiff resistance to the idea of change, from within the same sectors of society that admit the need for it. But Japan is no longer an isolated island country. Its volume of trade with the world and its financial and industrial clout are enormous. The parallel with Tokugawa Japan is valid only in the mental sense, the sense of a people and a government clinging to a structure that no longer responds to today's needs.
The barriers must come down. Mentally, and not merely in trade, Japan must join the world. That means pain and a variety of competing prescriptions.
This week two new parties formed from the splintering Liberal Democrats. Tsutomu Hata, leader of the larger group, is described as a prime ministerial candidate of a unified opposition in the election scheduled for July 18. Almost certainly the Liberal Democrats will lose their majority. Miyazawa may well be removed as Japan's last ruler under the current system of one-party government.
The outlines of what will follow are far from clear. But the July 18 election has the potential for becoming a turning point in Japanese history as fateful as the 1868 shift from feudalism to modernity.