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Japan's Old Ruling Party Once Again Pulls the Strings

ONE of the oldest truisms about Japan is that the surface is deceiving.

The current government, ostensibly led by the country's first Socialist premier in 46 years, is a fine example of this old maxim. The Japanese, of course, are not fooled.

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They know what is underneath the premiership of Tomiichi Murayama: the Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP ran the government from 1955 to 1993, earning a well-deserved reputation for fostering big business, tolerating political corruption, and opposing Socialists.

Amid rising voter distaste and the defections of some important leaders, the LDP was forced to leave power last summer. Now, a year later, it is back.

In what many Japanese said was a shocking example of political expediency, the LDP backed Mr. Murayama for prime minister in a June 29 parliamentary election. Murayama's coalition includes approximately 70 Socialists, about 200 LDP members, and a dozen or so members of an LDP splinter group called the New Pioneer Party, or Sakigake.

The real face of power in the coalition came to the fore in Naples, Italy, earlier this month, at the annual summit of the world's richest industrial democracies. Murayama was sidelined shortly after his arrival by what aides said was exhaustion and digestive trouble.

So Yohei Kono - who is deputy prime minister, foreign minister, and, most importantly, the leader of the LDP - stepped in to replace Murayama. The lack of subtlety in this symbolism was remarkable, but it was just the beginning.

Backtracking on past policies

Since the summit, Murayama has been busy reversing and undermining many of the most time-honored policies of his Social Democratic Party.

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On July 20 he told parliament he thinks that the US-Japan security pact should be maintained, contravening years of Socialist opposition. He has also said that Japan's military, known as the Self Defense Forces, is legal, despite years of Socialist contention that having a military is unconstitutional. Japan's charter, drafted by the US occupation forces, says land, sea, and air forces ``will not be maintained.'' That, however, is just rhetoric. In practice, Japan spends more on its military than any other country except the US, if military pensions are included in the calculation - a buildup made possible by the LDP.

Murayama has also announced that ``unarmed neutrality,'' for decades the way the Socialists saw Japan's role in the world, was outdated and no longer valid. He has also officially acknowledged the status of Japan's de facto national flag and anthem, which his party has opposed because they were used to stir nationalist sentiment in the prelude to World War II.

The LDP has made some minor concessions, too. In August, for instance, the LDP will send officials to antinuclear memorials at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Murayama has already made the more substantive concession of backing the government's nuclear-power policies, which Socialists have long opposed.

All in all, having a Socialist premier has been quite a ride for the SDP and its supporters. Some of them want to get off.

SDP parliamentarian Hiromi Okazaki, in a telephone interview from her constituency in Kobe, says she is worried that Murayama is a ``harmony-oriented coordinator'' who lacks his own vision and will swallow LDP policies in order to build a stable government. She is a member of the party's extreme left, some of whom have hinted that they may leave the party.

But the defectors are likely to be few, analysts say. For the most part, the SDP's parliamentarians will probably go along with Murayama's reversals of policy at a party congress in early September, in part because they recognize that the premier has to acknowledge realities like the military and treaties that Japan has signed.

Deflating his opposition

Political observers also admire Murayama for deflating the opposition.

The reformist, ex-LDP politicians who have run the last two coalition governments had planned to exploit the vast policy disparities between Murayama and his coalition partners. But Murayama has pounded their spears into dull objects that cannot do much harm. Many observers here conclude that all this harmony makes the Murayama regime stable. That means Japan's political scene could calm down until the next round of lower house elections, which can be put off until the summer of 1997, when the current term of lower house members expires.

Then the coalition will face a potentially insurmountable obstacle: fostering cooperation among Socialist and LDP supporters at the local level. Says Yukio Hatoyama, a leading member of the Sakigake, ``This is the major issue that needs to be dealt with.''

Mr. Hatoyama sounds as if the parties in the coalition can somehow work the problem out, but many analysts are more pessimistic. ``Genuine electoral cooperation,'' says political commentator Minoru Morita, ``is impossible.''

There is also the possibility that the supporters of both the LDP and the Socialists will abandon their parties out of disgust; the Socialist rank and file may not be as forgiving as Murayama's fellow parliamentarians, and voters may not be convinced that LDP is ready to rule again.

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