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Samurai Politics

JAPAN'S political ``old guard'' isn't going down without a battle. Its struggle for power and against political and economic reforms claimed a significant casualty last Friday, when reformist Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa suddenly announced his resignation.

In a process that carries eerie echoes of the Whitewater controversy in the United States, the Liberal Democratic Party and its allies within the government bureaucracy raised allegations dealing with past campaign finances: In Mr. Hosokawa's case, they alleged that he illegally borrowed campaign money in the early 1980s. This against a politician who came to national office as a former governor and who pledged to end one-party politics as usual in Japan. The LDP has blocked passage of a national budget, demanding that Hosokawa disprove the allegations. The picture darkened further when the prime minister discovered legally questionable activities surrounding investments made on his behalf by a ``friend.''

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The LDP's assault has been made easier by Hosokawa's weakness within his seven-party coalition. Promising to enact political reforms when elected eight months ago, he was forced to dilute them to hold the coalition together - although the changes adopted still represent a significant shift. Moreover, the coalition forced him to abandon other proposals, such as raising consumption taxes and reorganizing the Cabinet. Nor has he wholly succeeded in battling the economic bureaucracy in dealings with the US.

By Japan's standards, Hosokawa's troubles are mild. Although his approval rating has fallen from 70 percent just after election to 50 percent, those figures remain strong relative to other recent prime ministers. The LDP's approval ratings are hovering at about 15 percent. Nor would the allegations, if true, be surprising; the prime minister and many members of his coalition are products of the system they seek to reform.

More important are the practical attempts at reform he made. He also took a courageous stand in opening Japan's market to rice imports, despite a powerful farm lobby. If his resignation allows him time to disprove the charges, he may yet have a major role to play within his coalition. In any case, the coalition now has a responsibility to pick a leader who will keep the country from reverting to the LDP's one-party ways.

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