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A Clintonesque Japanese Politician Prepares to Become Prime Minister

After 38 years of one-party rule, Japan has the makings of a two-party system - on the surface

A MOTLEY team of youthful politicians will take over Japan's helm by next week from aging postwar leaders.

Japan's new coalition of right- and left-wing politicians will be led by Morihiro Hosokawa, a former southern governor who rocketed to fame in just 14 months, preaching "change" with a new telegenic style.

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Many have identified Mr. Hosokawa as a Tokyo-style Bill Clinton. "His situation resembles that of Clinton, who was propelled to the White House from a gubernatorial post, helped by people who supported change," said the Nikkei newspaper.

Fresh faces, more than policy turnabouts, have forced a historic transition in Japan from the once-powerful but now enfeebled Liberal Democratic Party to a coalition government run by LDP rebels such as Hosokawa. The LDP held power for 35 years.

In fact, most leaders of the seven-party coalition that is due to elect Japan's next prime minister after Aug. 5 have cut their teeth under LDP power-brokers.

Each of them split from the party, because of either ambition or ethics, as more and more Japanese became fed up with LDP corruption, its Confucian-style seniority system, and a lack of change in Japan's political life.

Hosokawa, an early party defector and one of the most trusted politicians by the public for his anti-graft image, was chosen the coalition's candidate for prime minister.

"It is heaven's will," Hosokawa said in accepting the post, although he had earlier expressed reluctance.

The coalition's survival may depend on Hosokawa keeping his popularity as a reform crusader against the LDP. He earned that credential by starting a new, conservative party in May 1992, called the Japan New Party.

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With just novice politicians, his party quickly won several elections, taking enough seats in the lower house election of July 18 to be the swing party in forming a coalition.

By his own admission, he is an unlikely and unwilling choice to be prime minister. A former journalist, he spent 20 years in the LDP, first in the upper house, then as a governor of Kumamoto prefecture.

After joining a national government council on reform, he became fed up with special-interest politics of the LDP and bureaucracy, and launched his own party.

Soft-spoken and often vague, Hosokawa has had little experience in national government, a point that his critics say could prevent him from standing up to strong bureaucrats. His friends say he prefers to operate as a "scenario writer," cooking up new political ideas.

His anti-LDP coalition has endorsed almost every policy of the conservative LDP. Even the Socialists, who hold the most votes in the coalition, held to the LDP line. "The biggest issue is how to keep stability in the new government," Hosokawa admitted to reporters, as he began the delicate task of dividing Cabinet posts among seven parties.

For now, the coalition's glue is its drive to reform the election system, a move aimed at reducing corruption, and one which would upset the political system set up by elder LDP leaders.

As a counter move, the LDP on Friday elected a younger leader, Yohei Kono, himself a former LDP rebel who returned to the party as prodigal son. At the age of 56 he is of Hosokawa's generation and ilk and can compete for the "change" vote.

Mr. Kono may be more than a figurehead, as was the last youthful prime minister, Toshiki Kaifu, who was chosen in 1989 during a crisis to temporarily clean up the LDP's image. Mr. Kaifu was dumped in 1991 when he pushed for electoral reform.

In selecting Kono, the LDP ousted Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who led the party haplessly through a Kabuki-style tragedy played out in a steady loss of support in repeated scandals over the past two years. And it passed over his heir-apparent, Michio Watanabe, an old-style politician.

On the surface, Japan now has the makings of a two-party system after 38 years of virtual one-party rule. Since the end of the cold war, with Japan no longer needing one-party rule against a Socialist opposition, many political and business leaders have debated how Japan can create a second conservative party that could enliven Japan's meager public debate to meet new international challenges.

"Japan can have a stable two-party system," says Sony chairman Akio Morita, whose name is touted as a possible trade minister in the new government.

But chances remain high that the new coalition, with extremes of left and right under its tent, could split within a year, say many analysts, as fault-lines widen over policy differences now glossed over. At present, the coalition is united in its strong anti-LDP bent.

"We can attack the new government viciously, but we won't do that. It is very fragile and we must be ready to take back the reins of government as soon as it breaks up," LDP leader Kono said on a Sunday TV talk-show.

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